Budding Scientists Take Root

July 31, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Putting a leopard gecko on her shoulder may not be an ordinary way for Claire Salinas to start the school day at St. Thomas the Apostle, but it is at the Van Andel Education Institute Science Academy, where she is part of the inaugural class of students learning about science in a very hands-on way.

With several rodents, tarantulas named Fang and Charlotte, and a fast grass lizard that has climbed its cage to escape its observers, the academy classroom is different than a regular science class.

“It’s not like school, it’s not boring,” said Salinas, a 10-year-old future scientist studying the movement patterns of the leopard gecko’s legs. “It’s really fun and the teachers are really nice and teach in a really fun way.”

To prove her point, Salinas explains that the male gecko she is holding, Linux, is healthy, while another gecko, known only as Female Gecko, is sickly. Salinas said this has been determined from the size of Female Gecko’s tail, which is considerably skinnier than her male counterpart’s.

The gecko and its health and movement are only a few of the studies that have occurred during the past few weeks for the 21 students learning about biology and the habitats and environment that make up the earth.

“We wanted to create an environment where they do the same work that scientists do,” said Marcia Bishop, Van Andel Education Institute associate director.

“It has gone incredibly well,” she added. “They’re acting and thinking like scientists.”

During their time with the program, the students have visited John Ball Zoo and Frederik Meijer Gardens, studying habitats within the sites.

Marty Coon, a science education specialist, said the students have been exploring the diversity of life.

“They’re getting an overview of all the life living on the earth,” he said.

The students have experimented with the preferences of pill bugs, creating their own habitats for the insects and moving on to animals such as rats, tarantulas and lizards.

The class is student-centered, with the students deciding what areas they want to study.

“It’s really this combination of conceptualizing, understanding and the scientific process,” he said.

Coon said the program is different from a regular classroom in the way the students interact and the resources that are available to them.

“This facility makes it so we are able to get kids working in teams a little more efficiently with tools they might not usually have,” he said.

Science can help the students better understand their own surroundings, Coon said.

“What they’re learning is applied and connected to their own lives,” he said.

Next summer, the same students will return to the summer program. The students, who are part of a cooperative meant to encourage one another in the pursuit of science, will also return the following summer for the final stage of their program.

Bishop said another program will start as soon as the first is finished, and there are plans to expand the programs to include more students as time goes on. She said there should be at least one additional program by next year.

The student have been devoted to their studies, Bishop said, working on projects over the weekends and looking forward to returning to the program next summer.

“They’ve really taken their work seriously,” she said.

Salinas, the student who studied the movement of the gecko, said she and her fellow students will continue with their love of science after completing the program.

“I think it will be a big part of our lives,” she said.

President and CEO Dave Van Andel said that is the point of having an educational component to the Van Andel Institute. With a graduate program in the works, Van Andel said he knew it was not enough to have opportunities just for those who have already chosen to go into a scientific field.

“We recognize that before we even get to that level, we have to home-grow some of our own scientists here at that age,” he said of the students at the Science Academy. “We have an incredible demand that’s been created for those types of positions, and we don’t have enough kids that are coming out of our schools that are interested in those (scientific jobs).”

Van Andel said he hopes that not only will the young students learn to appreciate science, but also that the program will give teachers a better insight into how to teach science.

“We’re going to be doing a lot of learning from the kids,” he said. “The reality is they probably understand much more than they think. … That’s wonderful stuff and we’ve got to get them to that point where they become comfortable with that and there are some opportunities there.”

Van Andel said making sure the students, who are all from the city of Grand Rapids, were from different backgrounds was also important to determining how they learn.

“Kids are going to come to this from all different walks of life,” he said. “The theories then don’t become based solely on geography or ethnicities or demographics as it relates to household income or anything like that.”

Having the students work together in peer groups and have more role models is also a component, Van Andel said.

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