Calvin Plants Science Seed At Middle Schools

January 12, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Calvin College is teaming with local schools, businesses and organizations to help young students gain an interest in science before high school — and at the same time, it is helping teachers make science more interesting and accessible.

The project, Team Researchers In A GLOBE-al Environment (TRIAGE), is part of the National Science Foundation’s Academies for Young Scientists programs and is one of 16 projects funded throughout the country. “GLOBE” refers to the curriculum that will be used and stands for Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment.

The $722,000 grant will allow 160 students from the Grand Rapids area to engage in hands-on research during the course of one year, meeting once a week during the school year and for a two-week session in the summer. The first group of 80 meets for the first time this month and finishes up in December; the second group will meet from January to December in 2008.

Rachel Sytsma Reed, project coordinator and an assistant professor in the education department at Calvin, wrote the grant in hopes of connecting her interest in astro-bio-geo chemistry and her doctorate in educational psychology, as well as to be able to bring the project to her home community of Grand Rapids

After the initial year, students will spend a second year of analyzing data, Reed said. The grant was awarded in October, giving Reed time to prepare for the project to begin in January.

The project will take place entirely outside of school hours, giving the students a chance to experience science as an extracurricular activity. Career night presentations from professional partners and field trips to sites such as FrederikMeijerGardens & SculpturePark and the Grand Valley State University Annis Water Resource Institute will be a part of the program. The two-week summer portion will end in a student research project and colloquium, and the entire project will culminate with a community colloquium in December when the students share their group research.

Students will work in a team, preferably made up of students from different school systems.

“We’re going to have kids in teams of five from different districts working together to learn about and to conduct authentic research,” Reed said.

The five school systems involved are Grand Rapids Christian, Grand Rapids Public, Grand Rapids Catholic, Wyoming Public and Forest Hills Public. If there are more spaces than those schools can fill, it will be opened up to other school districts, such as East Grand Rapids and AdaChristianSchools

To take part, students must commit to 150 hours of participation in the program. The program will actually provide more than 150 hours of involvement, including optional summer field trips to help students make up hours they may have missed because of sickness or scheduling conflicts.

In addition to students, there are 20 teachers, nine Calvin education students, scientists from other institutions and private businesses, and parents involved in the project. Reed said the grant is mandated to have business and community partners, making it a very rich program.

“We know that kids learn better when there is a really broad network of people supporting their learning,” she said.

Reed said she also hopes the community involvement will encourage partners to support the program and allow it to go beyond the two years the grant will fund.

In addition to helping community schools and students, Reed said the grant will also work to help the National Science Foundation expand its understanding of how students learn.

“They’re interested in finding out what kinds of extracurricular programs work to get middle school students interested in (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields,” she said.

Reed said they also will be looking at the best method to help students understand the nature of science to sufficiently conduct their own research. One of the groups will be immersed in scientific research and the second will be taught with a “scaffolding approach” where they will be walked through the research step-by-step. The two methods will be studied and compared, with results going to the National Science Foundation.

The program will also be evaluated by George Robinson from the College of New Rochelle in New York

Janet Vail, associate professor of water resources at the Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon, will help scientists at the institute learn the GLOBE curriculum in order to take part in the program. Students will have the opportunity to study local streams and ponds, creating hypotheses about the water, then researching and testing those hypotheses.

“One of the intriguing things about the project is that it’s designed to serve as a model,” Vail said. “I think it would be great to have it continue beyond the grant funding time and perhaps sort of integrate it with the overall experience for those students who are really interested.”

The majority of learning will take place at the BunkerInterpretiveCenter and Ecosystem Preserve on the Calvin campus, which will serve as home base, Reed said.

“From the home base, we will have students coming weekly after school and engaging in team-building activities, data collection and analysis, and authentic researching experiences,” she said.

Reed said she hopes the program will both spark interest in those students who have little experience with science and provoke further interest in those who already like science by giving them a new experience outside the classroom.

“Their school experience is a very different experience from what they’ll have here,” she said.

There will be more creativity and interactive risk-taking during the program than in school, Reed said, and hopefully the program will inspire the teachers involved to take more of those elements back to their classrooms.

“It’s really exciting for us to have this opportunity right here,” Reed said, adding that there are only about 1,000 students in the country who will have such an opportunity.

Gordon Van Harn, director of the Van Andel Education Institute, has acted as an adviser to the project and said he is interested to see how the project progresses.

“We’re leaving open the possibility that this is something we could collaborate on,” Van Harn said.

The Van Andel Education Institute has its own science academy; it focuses on fourth- and fifth-graders and was launched last year.

Van Harn said he believes the design and vision for the project is well conceived and introduces research to students at a level that is appropriate.

“The need is great when you think about potential at various grade levels,” he said. “This will only make a small dent in the total need in this community — relatively small, but it’s significant.”

Other partners include the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute, and Timmermans Environmental Services.    

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