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Get students psyched about science with hands-on projects

By Team ISTE 10/7/2015 Project-based learning STEM & STEAM

Susan Brown describes her classroom as low tech, but that didn’t stop her from coming up with an award-winning project that sparked students’ interest in science and earned her funding for some high-tech tools.

Brown, a teacher at Northland Preparatory Academy in Flagstaff, Arizona, is helping students in grades 6-12 explore how climate change affects lichen growth and diversity through a long-term research project in collaboration with Northern Arizona University and a local arboretum. The technology for the project is partially funded by her winnings from the 2015 Vernier/National Science Teachers Association Technology Awards.

The project was two years in the making, but is now in full swing. Educators collected lichen from two elevation samples over the summer, and students gathered lichen samples from the arboretum. Students will study 30 lichen samples in the school-based garden as well as additional samples from three elevations in the larger environment.  

“It’s pretty awesome because scientists at NAU will work side-by-side with students. We’ll set up a baseline set of data, and each year students will build on it, researching a different aspect as they move forward by grade. So the kids will learn over time,” Brown explains.

Kids realize they can make a difference.

Students will also create experiments of their own to study plant growth and the effects of light, temperature and water on the lichen samples.

The study gives students a personal perspective on climate change and provides a hands-on way to study it. “They’ll get an appreciation for organisms they may have overlooked before, and they’ll be part of a scientific study where they’ll see they can make a difference,” Brown says.

Her goal is to get students excited about careers in science by having them work with the tools that will be part of their future. “I want them to learn how to use these instruments efficiently and effectively because that’s what they will work with for the rest of their lives.”

The technology used for the study includes a weather station; probes to measure temperature, humidity and precipitation; iPads to photograph the lichen specimens; and microscopes that attach to the iPads.

Students learn how chemicals affect their daily lives.

Ann Shioji, a physiology and chemistry teacher at William C. Overfelt High School in San Jose, California, is helping students explore how chemicals affect their daily lives through her innovative “Beauty and the Yeast” PBL project.   

First, students conduct preliminary research on the gestation period and reproduction rates of yeast. Down the road, they’ll conduct a class investigation on a closed population of yeast using a spectrophotometer to measure the absorbance spectra of various chemical and biochemical compounds. Students will later design their own inquiry-based experiments to test the effects of chemicals on the yeast cells for their science fair projects.

One student plans to study the effects of red dye #40 on yeast, while another will test the effect of makeup on the yeast cells.

Through the project, students will learn about independent and dependent variables and how to collect and analyze data. Shioji’s betting they will also get fired up about participating in science fairs.

Shioji, also a 2015 Vernier/NSTA Technology Award winner, says the science fair tie-in gives students real-world experience.

“Students think the project is really cool,” Shioji says.

If you’re using data-collection technology in innovative ways in your classroom, why not apply for the 2016 Vernier/NSTA Technology Awards? K-12 and college science teachers are eligible to apply by Nov. 30.

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