image by woodleywonderworks
by Mike Seong Son
Over the past decade, educational institutions across the country have recognized the need to increase emphasis on teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, related disciplines at all levels of education (Carr, Bennett IV, & Strobel, 2012; Fairweather, 2008; Laursen, Liston, Thiry, & Graf, 2007). Plymouth State University (PSU), being no exception, has made a strong push by implementing various STEM initiatives, reaching out to area schools and connecting PSU faculty to the different teachers, educators, and administration to promote the importance of STEM education in elementary, middle, and high schools.
I have two passions when it comes to my professional career: conducting scientific research and teaching. My passion for teaching gets reinvigorated with each semester when I see the expressions on students’ faces change as they realize they just learned something or were able to make some personal connection with the class material to something in their lives. But this only partially satisfied my passion for teaching. I felt something was missing, and I felt like I could do more.
Last academic year, I sought out an opportunity to do some community outreach and volunteered to talk to a class of kindergarten students at Plymouth Elementary School (PES). It was a quick 60 minutes, but I managed to introduce the children to some of the basic natural sciences, and we talked about biology, botany, chemistry, and a little microbiology (or “germs,” as they like to call them). The students were very receptive, had inquisitive questions, and had a good time with some of the simple experiments I had for them, such as picking up ice in a cup full of water using only thread and salt. They were so excited that I even talked about my specialty and showed them some glow-in-the-dark bacteria. This led to discussions about how diseases like the common cold and flu spread and why it is so important to wash their hands after playing outside or before eating. Even at their young age, they were able to relate to this concept of “germs” and disease and why their parents always tell them to wash their hands or use hand sanitizers.
This theme was reiterated in a second outreach opportunity at PES later that school year, in the early part of summer in 2014, this one a direct result of a PSU STEM initiative, the STEM Fair. The 5th grade teachers at PES, whose students were reading a book about yellow fever, contacted me to visit the class to discuss not only yellow fever but also the concept of human diseases and how they spread. Naturally, I took this opportunity to turn these young students into citizen scientists and related all that microbiology to something they could relate to, the importance of hand washing, using a quick little experiment to show them how “dirty” their hands were before and after using hand sanitizers.
After receiving handwritten letters from all the students in the mail a few weeks later, everything just clicked. It wasn’t just me that was enjoying the science and what we talked about, these students were also enjoying learning about it. I realized that it didn’t matter how young the students were, they were all learners. And if you teach them from a perspective they understand or can relate to, even the concept of bacteria and disease can be understood. That’s when I recognized the need for learners to be exposed to the STEM-related concepts as early as possible, and with this small epiphany, the idea of a summer science camp that targeted primary schools to show students how fun, interesting, and engaging science can be came to fruition. I wanted to hook students into science as early as possible, nurturing that natural curiosity and letting it develop as they mature.
I realized that it didn’t matter how young the students were, they were all learners. And if you teach them from a perspective they understand or can relate to, even the concept of bacteria and disease can be understood.
With the help and encouragement of the Dean of Arts and Science, Dr. Cynthia Vascak, the chair of the biological sciences department, Dr. Kerry Yurewicz, and Linda Hammond from the Division of Online and Continuing Studies, all from PSU, I developed PSU’s first summer science camp, Science Explorers. In its inaugural year, this science camp was aimed at young learners entering grades 1 through 3, and the success of this camp would set up the design for future camps aimed at not only young learners entering grades 1 through 3 but expanding to include a second class of young learners, those entering grades 6 through 8.
The main theme behind Science Explorers was to introduce the concept of what science is—the foundational concept of the scientific method, simplified and using different disciplines in the sciences to demonstrate it. In other words, showing the young learners a quick demonstration and saying to them, “That was cool. Why did it happen?” and then we would proceed to conduct different experiments to answer that question.
Each day of the camp, we explored a different scientific discipline (botany on Monday, chemistry on Tuesday, biology on Wednesday, and microbiology on Thursday), and the young learners conducted several hands-on experiments related to that discipline throughout the day, every day. For example, on Monday (botany and plant biology), the students were introduced into my actual research laboratory, we went over basic lab safety rules and expectations, and we discussed what science meant to each of them. Each of the learners was then given a lab notebook and pencil to take notes throughout the week on all the different experiments. For this particular day, we focused on the importance and diversity of plants and the environment and what plants need to grow and how they grow.
We discussed the scientific method and how we start with a unique problem or observation (problem)—in this case, how can we make a seed germinate faster? Next, we looked at different kinds of seeds and discussed how they’re different (shapes, color, textures, etc.) and what kinds of things seeds need to germinate in order to learn as much as possible (background information). This was a perfect opportunity to show the learners how much they already knew by playing a seed identification game and trying to correlate simple things about the different characteristics of the seeds and the plants they grow into. After all the discussion and the game, we tried to come up with logical guesses as to how to make the seeds germinate faster, either under moistened paper towels or in the soil (hypothesis), and asked questions about how we can see what is happening (experimental design and observations). Finally, we started the experiment and allowed the seeds to germinate in moistened paper towels and in soil and compared how long it took before we saw sprouts. As they do not germinate overnight, we let this experiment go the entire week, making notes and observations (in the form of drawings) every day until the seeds germinated. At the end of the week, we discussed what we saw and if our original ideas were correct (conclusions).
This was just one simple example of the many different experiments the young learners performed over the course of four days. But the amount of attention they displayed and the effort they put in to see the experiment to the end emphasized that students are never too young to start learning science. It is a matter of finding the appropriate medium and perspective to initially capture their attention and then to build off that attention and engage them as much as possible, keeping the entire experience interactive. Over the four days of the camp, the young learners didn’t realize how much they were actually learning simply because they were having too much fun; it wasn’t until the final day, in fact, that they realized how much they had learned. They applied all the knowledge they learned over the week about plants, chemistry (temperature, phases of matter, water chemistry, etc.), biology (land, air, and sea animals), and even microbiology (bacteria, viruses, and disease) to put together a live saltwater aquarium, complete with a plant (an aquarium seaweed) and animals (clownfish, a shrimp, and hermit crabs) living in perfect water conditions, with nutrient-recycling bacteria and all.
To end the week, the families and friends of the young learners were invited to join the class, and each learner presented his or her favorite experiment from the camp to the visitors. The pride that not only the learners had as they presented their experiments but the parents as well was so surreal, it took me back to why I put the camp together in the first place and why all that work was worth it. Not only did these learners leave with a new wealth of knowledge about plants, animals, and everything in between, but also an appreciation for science.
Two months after the camp ended, I happened to run into the parents of one of the young learners, and they told me that their child still talked about the camp, not only to them but also to their friends and teachers at school. And to me, that is all I needed to hear to encourage me to plan for next year’s camp and show another class of young learners that science is not scary, not boring, and not hard, but very, very cool.
Details about the camp and a slideshow highlighting the young learners’ accomplishments can be found at: http://jupiter.plymouth.edu/~msson/Mike_Sons_Webpage/News/Entries/2014/7/14_Summer_Science_Camp.html
Mike Seong Son is assistant Professor of Microbiology at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH.
Carr, R. L., Bennett IV, L. D., & Strobel, J. (2012). Engineering in the k-12 STEM standards of the 50 US states: An analysis of presence and extent. Journal of Engineering Education, 101(3), 539–564.
Fairweather, J. (2008). Linking evidence and promising practices in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) undergraduate education. A status report for the National Academies National Research Council Board of Science Education. Retrieved from https://www.nsf.gov/attachments/117803/public/Xc–Linking_Evidence–Fairweather.pdf
Laursen, S., Liston, C., Thiry, H., & Graf, J. (2007). What good is a scientist in the classroom? Participant outcomes and program design features for a short-duration science outreach intervention in k-12 classrooms. CBE Life Sciences Education, 6(1), 49–64.