Partners Bring Hands-on Learning to Northwest Ohio Schools through Cutting-Edge Curriculum
It’s one thing to learn about the environment in class through books and pictures and quite another to experience it by conducting actual scientific research.
Thanks to a hands-on STEM program designed to engage kids in science, technology, engineering and math, students in Perkins and Sandusky schools are getting that chance.
The program — called iEvolve, for Inquiry and Engagement to Invigorate and Optimize Learning for Everyone — employs a citizen-science approach that teaches students to use professional methods to conduct reliable research that educates them, helps their communities, and serves scientists and students across the globe.
Dr. Bob Midden of Bowling Green State University, associate vice provost for experiential and innovative learning and an associate professor of chemistry, conceived the project after developing a science course for first-year undergraduates with non-science majors. Midden wanted to determine whether private water wells had been contaminated by abandoned oil wells in the area, so he created a simple device to test the well water and took his students to investigate. What he discovered went well beyond the test results.
“Students responded much better than those in other general education science courses,” Midden said. “They liked that they were learning while doing something that provided a benefit to others.”
Midden began wondering how a similar program might help students at the K-12 level. Ohio state science standards require students to demonstrate competency in planning and conducting scientific investigations, so he reached out to science organizations in the area and to two nearby school districts that were receptive to the idea.
The result was a five-year partnership, funded by the National Science Foundation and beginning in 2013, to work with children in grades three through eight in Perkins Local School District and Sandusky City Schools. Led by BGSU, the partners include Ohio State University’s Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab, Erie County Soil and Water Conservation District, Lourdes University, Metroparks of the Toledo Area, University of Toledo and the Toledo Zoo.
The goal was to see if conducting quality research as part of the curriculum could affect student engagement and learning in science and other subjects. Students conduct experiments both in and outside the classroom and share their results with their peers and community.
“We don’t want this to be separate from everyday learning,” said Dr. Kristen Fussell, Ohio Sea Grant assistant director of administration and research and one of the iEvolve educators. “It’s not just science learning, but how do they bring that into their whole school day?”
As citizen scientists, students in iEvolve educate themselves and their communities. They present their research at themed parent nights at schools and at public displays at local Metropark events, supermarkets and city commission meetings. By identifying environmental concerns right in their backyard, students take an important step in addressing them, and in doing so, they demonstrate the impact that a small but dedicated group of scientific minds can make.
The results can be surprisingly quick and effective. After studying the role that bees, butterflies and other pollinators play in the environment and learning how a decline in monarch butterfly populations can signal an even larger environmental concern, students in Sandusky took action. They planted a dedicated pollinator garden and handed out seeds for milkweed and other nectar plants to members of the community.
As a result, Sandusky was named the first official Monarch City in Ohio by Monarch City USA, a nationwide organization that encourages cities to undertake such plantings to restore monarch populations. Later the same year, the students’ efforts had a domino effect in nearby Port Clinton when a citizen, upon learning of Sandusky’s status as a Monarch City, suggested the idea to her local government, which unanimously passed a motion pledging support.
But the students’ research does more than advance their education and help their local communities. Participating schools upload their findings to a data collection program sponsored by NASA — Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) — which is used by scientists and students from more than 100 countries for analysis and research. The site also provides grade-appropriate research activities for students in more than 30,000 schools.
“If you consider the value of literally millions of data points collected from around the world, if you tried to collect that data with professional scientists, it would be virtually impossible,” Midden said. “There are multiple ways we benefit from this type of integration in the K-12 classroom.” For example, students can validate existing data from satellites and provide onsite observations and in turn gain the satisfaction of being part of a larger scientific movement.
The iEvolve program asks students to explain not only what they know, but how they reached their conclusions. In short, it encourages critical thinking. So how does all of this affect student learning?
“There have definitely been noticeable changes with how my students react to new ideas as a result of resources we have come into contact with through the iEvolve grant,” said Meghan Smith, a 7th-grade science teacher at Perkins schools. “I feel like we are asking our students to think deeper and explain their thinking more than we were doing prior to the program.”
Better yet, the students love it.
Educators are still analyzing data collected from teachers and students to measure iEvolve’s impact on student engagement, but signs indicate the question is not whether the program increased engagement, but by how much.
“We’ve fully achieved our goals during the project itself and somewhat exceeded our hopes,” Midden said. “Students have uniformly responded enthusiastically for the opportunity to (learn) science by doing science, and schools have reported finding improvements in science scores.”
“We’ve fully achieved our goals during the project itself and somewhat exceeded our hopes.”
The question now is, what’s next? Midden would like to move beyond just science. “Ideally, (we) find a school district that would like to completely revise its science, history and language arts programs and see how that affects student motivation,” he said. The goal is to identify and adopt best practices to further invest students in their own education.
But it takes time for a district to be found and a new curriculum to be written. Meanwhile, John Gerber, a Perkins High School science teacher, is taking the lessons learned at the elementary- and middle-school levels and applying them at his high school. “I felt it was not appropriate that their exposure to . . . citizen-science projects abruptly end once they entered 9th grade,” said Gerber, who acted as a liaison between BGSU and Perkins teachers during the iEvolve program.
Embracing the principles of iEvolve, he has proposed that his school offer advanced placement (AP) environmental science and a semester-long course on citizen-science research topics that will be determined by the students themselves. Gerber is looking forward to exploring how the increased freedom of high school affects students’ research. “I’m excited about allowing students to take on a significant amount of control in identifying and designing their citizen-science research experiences.”
Gerber is not the only teacher experimenting with lessons learned in iEvolve. As part of the grant, iEvolve brought in several master teachers from outside Perkins and Sandusky to provide professional development to teachers on the new science curriculum and pedagogy. “Several of these master teachers have returned to their own schools to implement citizen-science research activities and projects based on what they observed happening as part of this grant,” Gerber said.
Only time will tell the full effect of iEvolve on science education in Ohio and beyond, but it’s clear this is a step in the right direction. In the meantime, for the students who are involved and the communities that benefit, science will always be more than just school.