Technology, methodology help middle school kids learn science

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published March 21, 2014

EASTPOINTE/ROSEVILLE — While Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson may be trying to educate the masses about science in the new “Cosmos” show, local schools are working on educating kids using new technology and classic scientific methods.

Roseville Middle School Principal David Rice said that science has been a weak point for Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test scores for a few years now, so this year they have decided to work on a new program geared toward teaching students more than just facts.

Rice said the data from the MEAP indicated that students did not have a problem with the material being presented, so much as the process of the scientific method.

“I think schools have been more worried, traditionally, about what exactly the material is we’re teaching, so we’ve been getting them to memorize materials in the past,” Rice said. “Now the focus is on how to get their minds into a better problem-solving mode. It’s not just about rock formations they need to learn. It might be about ‘How do you analyze any rock formation you come across?’”

He said that if a student knows how to answer these questions, that is less classroom time the teachers need to go over old material in class. Rice said there have been other low-tech ways to get students involved, as well, such as using a community garden to teach them about how things grow and break down.

It’s not all low-tech, however, and Rice said Roseville Middle School has been getting more hands-on with labs, technology and opportunities for kids to work in groups, with each person contributing to the end result. He said the school has a supply of iPads loaded with educational apps, and traditional televisions have been phased out in favor of ceiling-mounted projectors hooked up to computers. The school is not the only one following that technological trend, however.

Diane Peters, instructional mentor with the East Detroit school district, said the middle school received a grant a few years ago so that it could purchase more technology for the classrooms, and that has been put to work.

She said teachers have been using online videos through YouTube and TeacherTube to demonstrate concepts in class, as well as online quizzes and interactive programs. Most of all, though, they are focused on providing middle school students with real-world examples and applications of the material.

“Middle school kids are egocentric, so if it relates to them, they get it,” Peters said. “With this weather going on, we’ve had some really rich discussions. Weather is an easy one, so we can talk about why it’s so dry on these days, and we’re talking about what’s going on with the pressure in the air.”

Peters said they also have been using some physical examples, too. Science teacher Susan Jowsey has used marshmallows and toothpicks to show how molecules bond together; damp graham crackers have been pushed together to show how tectonics work; and the students even participated in “bubblegum physics,” in which the class talked about the rate at which a person chews gum, and how that slows down over time.

“Usually, we’re a little weird and wacky,” Peters said. “In high school, they’re a bit more conservative, but we try to have fun with our kids and try to make connections with our kids. Rule No. 1 with middle school kids is you can’t go toe-to-toe with them, so we try to foster those relationships.”

Additionally, middle school girls who do well in math and science courses in East Detroit can get invited to a program run by the Macomb Intermediate School District. It holds an annual program for girls to meet women working in science, technology and medicine, Peters said, as a way to show the kids that opportunities exist for them in those fields.

Rice said that Roseville Middle School has not yet participated in that program, but is looking into it for the future. Eastland Middle School Principal Paul Schummer said his school is not involved either, as it is currently focused inward with its science education across the board.

Schummer said his school also has invested heavily in technology for the students. Among the programs purchased is simulation software like Gizmo.

“For instance, we have a lesson in (science teacher) Sally Dodge’s class, talking about wavelength and amplitude,” Schummer said. “She was talking about the different variables and how they affect wavelength, and other factors that make waves. So, what she was able to with the Gizmo is, she would simulate different kinds of conditions that would affect it, and the kids could see the waves change. It was kind of like a motion — an animation — but it was interactive. We also have our iPad cart, which allows the kids to access the simulations.”

Another iPad app Schummer highlighted was used in discussions on plate tectonics during which the kids were able to use them to draw how the continents shifted. The teacher was able to cycle through everybody’s iPad screen with the pictures the students had drawn as they answered questions.

Some new classroom activities would be much more difficult to do without a technological boost. Schummer said one class used the school’s interactive whiteboards to view an interactive crime scene, in which they had to use scientific principles and deduction to figure out what happened.

Aside from bulking up technologically, Schummer said the science teachers have been working to improve the collaboration among students in class. Like Roseville Middle School, kids work primarily in groups to do experiments and lab demonstrations, and they are focusing on the scientific method rather than specific topics.

The school also offers “Project Challenge,” a districtwide program for students who do well enough to qualify. Schummer said for one day a week, the students work together with a number of hands-on activities.

“The other day they were modifying balloon-jet cars,” he said. “And they were looking at different factors that would cause them to roll further and then graph the results. So they may try something like making it more aerodynamic, or adding weight to the car and seeing what the effects are.”

The program also has engineers and scientists come and speak to the students about their professions, Schummer said.