Time for me to do my first batch of scribbling in this bloggity blog! Actually I think this is the first time I’ve ever written in a blog. And yesterday, another first – I taught in a middle school classroom for the first time.
I’m volunteering in the pilot of “Be A Scientist,” an outreach program with theCommunity Resources for Science (CRS). A little plug for CRS – they are an amazing Berkeley-based organization that aims to connect scientists, educators and students and provide an array of resources to help excel science education. Er, I’ll let them say it:
One of their most widespread programs, BASIS (Bay Area Scientists in Schools), brings scientists, mostly graduate students and post-docs from UC Berkeley, into elementary and middle schools to teach interactive, hands-on lessons. BASIS has had some remarkable success – last year (2013-2014), 500+ BASIS volunteers visited 416 Bay Area classrooms, presented over 100 different hands-on lessons, and reaching over 10,000 students. Teachers love it – each BASIS lesson was crafted to fulfill a specific state teaching standard, and they bring new perspectives to students about what science means.
Graciously, BASIS allows grad-school-procrastinators like myself go too. I’ve been visiting elementary school classrooms this year to teach interactive lessons on renewable energy. Last time we went to a third grade class. It was challenging to introduce the idea of renewable energy to the class, let alone the concept of “renewable” – we asked for examples of renewable things, and the students kept saying “shoes! Cuz you can go buy more!” We used a solar powered buggy demo, I guess a twice removed (since there are two more wheels?) cousin of our little infant Sol Cycle.
“Be a Scientist” is a bit different than BASIS. Rather than giving just one lesson over one class period, the same volunteers come into the same 7th grade class six times during the semester. Here’s the low down: every single student is designing, carrying out, analyzing, and presenting their own testable scientific experiment over the course of a month and a half. The idea is to introduce the scientific method to the students, coach them throughout the creative process, and relate it back to what we do in our own research projects. It was founded by Mary C. Wildermuth, a UC Berkeley Professor of Plant & Microbial Biology (stay posted peeps, we’re trying to line up a teacher profile with her!)
I walked into Mr. C’s classroom and immediately my eyes zipped around between dioramas of planets, bright posters all over the walls, and … to the gecko geckoing around in his gecko in the back corner! It was clear this teacher had worked really hard to create a comfortable, vibrant space for his students to learn at their fullest.
There were five other volunteers in my class. We started off giving quick overviews of our own research. I pulled the whole “I shoot giant six-foot lasers at stuff to make other stuff, KAPOWWW” line, and attempted to explain transparent conducting materials and their relevance in everyday devices: iPhones, LED disco dance displays, flat screen TVs, and – the ultimate, la crem de la crem – solar energy conversion. Other volunteers were from many different research areas, and talked about particle physics, nuclear physics, robotics, chemistry, biology, etc.
The students had so many o’ question. So many that the “quick” intro ended up taking up half the class period, leaving less time to break out into groups. Some highlights: “What is a grad student?” “How much money does Berkeley have? Does it get it from Football? Why do some schools have more money than other schools?” “Is chemistry, like, the stuff in your brain?” “Wait, whaaat is your name?” “Do you do what my mom does?” and one memorable one directed to me: “Do lasers make you blind, like, forever forever?”
For the rest of the class, I led four students in a discussion to brainstorm separate research projects for each of them. It was trickier than I’d thought. We need to come up with four experiments that are stimulating, challenging, and suited to the student’s interest, and the constraints are heavy – materials must be very cheap and the experiment must be feasible to complete in two class periods. The ol’ mentos and coke gag is off limits. And experimenting on animals is discouraged. So of course, my two most students immediately decided they wanted to work with mice (putting them in solitary confinement and in the dark!?) and with hamsters. Multiple. I tried to gauge what each of their general science interests were – neuroscience, computer science, electricity, and “um nothing” – and redirect these interests into testable questions not involving mice. We didn’t get too far, and the questions are very much under construction (just like the UCLA campus always is!) but here’s what they might be doing:
- How does the power output vary between batteries made out of different kinds of fruits and vegetables? Why? Bonus project: how can we hook up these batteries to charge an iPhone? (this student initially wanted to charge an iPhone with mulitple hamsters on a treadmill – the teacher said we could do that if his parents provided the hamsters. I wished him luck)
- How do humans react to being in darkness for varying periods of time? (We’re still having some trouble defining the dependant variables … this student wants to do this on mice, and is trying to pull the “Hey mom can you buy me seven mice” card. Again, sent some luck)
- How does the electronic resistance vary in different materials? How does it change when you heat them up? (I might be able to bring some semiconductor materials from my lab… thinking silicon, some metals, maybe something I’ve synthesized… might change the thickness, might measure transparency to try to squeeze in a lesson on transparent conductors?)
- What percentage of students can differentiate the taste of similar-textured foods when their sense of smell is eliminated? Nose-plugs are quite as hard to come by as hamsters, and are provided by the CRS. We’ll run the typical “potatoes vs. apples”, and come up with some others. We might use the same foods as the battery experiment.
I had a tough enough time talking with four students, and keeping all of their interest while narrowing each of their interests. At one point we had to take a break, and so we took the gecko out of its cage so I could explain the suction mechanism on its feet. After just a half hour of brainstorming, I was exhausted. Yet Mr. C used to do this same project every year for twenty years with NO help, in the same time frame. That means seven times as many kids as I was helping, and making sure each one of the 30 students has a project that is both exciting and practical. And then teaching six other classes of the same thing. That’s a whoppin’ 180 different science experiments.
Anyways, this was the first of six visits I am so excited to see how these projects evolve and I’m lucky to have the support of CRS throughout the process. I’m trying to drag Elizabeth along with me for a few classes (my avid readers: that’s where you come in! Start spam emailing Elizabeth to convince her to come with me! Okay fine, she has a super busy schedule because she just got into a bunch of PhD programs and has to, ya know, get flown all over the country so they can convince her to come work on piezoelectric devices…)
Sasha and Elise from the CRS are also oh so kindly helping us plan our Cycle for Science lessons – so stay tuned for many more CRS-related updates from ovah here!