Hooking Students on STEM: Help Them Have Real World Impact (Part 2 of 4)

“We cover the curriculum by choosing real things that the kids and I are interested in.”  Bill Elasky

In my last post, I reported on a unique program developed by the Department of Natural Sciences at the University of Texas. The Freshman Research Institute (FRI) was designed to reduce attrition in STEM majors.

But how do we help students develop a passion for STEM in the first place? What can we do in elementary and high school science/STEM to make students more likely to want to be part of a program like FRI on their way to becoming STEM professionals?

I’d like to suggest that, similar to the FRI program, which has students engaged in research with real-world impact from their Freshman year, we need to find ways to provide similar experiences for our elementary and high school students, creating opportunities for them to do hands-on, inquiry-based STEM projects with potential benefits both to themselves and to their community.

In his inspiring book, Schools that Work (1992), Ohio educator George Wood described one such initiative undertaken by 6th grade teacher Bill Elasky and his students in Amesville, Ohio, during the 1987-88 school year.

Amesville Elementary School with Bill Elasky

Amesville Elementary School with Bill Elasky

Here’s the story as reported by Wood:

“What started as a simple question from Bill at the beginning of the year — ‘What would you guys like to study?’ — has exploded into a project that covers almost all of the sixth grade curriculum.”

It started simply enough with a local fuel company dumping solvent in the local creek, “the natural curiosity of young people about what is going on around them, and a teacher willing to help them find out. Before they finished, the group had become one of the area’s most reliable sources of information on water quality both in homes and in the wild. The students sought out and received instruction on how to sample and test water, researched and ordered testing kits, raised funds for their work, performed tests, and developed a variety of reports. Their work was featured in local papers and they were … in demand as guest speakers at educational conferences …”

Wood recounts how Elasky and his students scrounged supplies, because at the outset they were woefully ill equipped to undertake a study of this magnitude. They repurposed a borrowed refrigerator for their samples and transformed their small classroom into a laboratory so that they could conduct their investigation of the water quality in their community, sometimes working Saturdays. Wood wrote, “as we see in good classrooms, the walls are covered with the indicators of the work going on: job lists, ways to facilitate group work, ‘Things We’ve Learned,’ a sample of a business letter requesting funds, maps, photos — every inch is covered.”

George Wood concluded his piece on the Water Chemists with the question “What did you learn besides how cold creek water can be on a winter morning,” generating the following responses from the young Water Chemists: “We learned how to do something, not just learn about something.” “We learned about how things really work.” “We learned more than we ever learn in the textbooks. All they do is start over every year and cover the same stuff.” We learned how to use what we know. In the (text) books we never do anything real. I mean, how often are you going to copy down sentences and till in the commas in a real job?” “We learned what we needed to know to get the job done. Teachers shouldn’t keep teaching us things we already know. They should have us do projects like this and then teach us things we need to get it done.” And finally, “Other teachers should teach the way Mr. E does. It’s more fun for us kids and I think the teachers would like it better too.”

In Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility, Chapter 9 “Teaching Values Through the Curriculum” pp. 161-162, (1991), Thomas Lickona also shared the story of Bill Elasky’s intrepid Sixth Grade Water Chemists. Lickona provides more detail on the various tasks the students performed and how they organized themselves for the work, useful information for teachers contemplating a similar project.

Students did the following in order to test water quality in their community, including testing water samples from 11 different places on Federal Creek and in private homes and businesses.

A Home in Amesville, Ohio

A Home in Amesville, Ohio

At the outset of the project, they

• Called Ohio University, local and state EPA offices, and the State Health Department to get information on water test kits;
• Had class meetings in which they decided that student groups should investigate sources and effects of the pollutants they were testing for and present their findings to the class;
• Interviewed people who know about water pollution and creek ecology;
• Developed one big chart on which to tabulate test results; and
• Launched an ad campaign to sell their testing service to individuals in the community (the revenue would offset classroom expenses).

According to Bill Elasky, “We spend a lot of time discussing how things are going to happen, … but it’s not dead time. It creates understanding of democratic processes and a lot of opportunity to develop critical thinking and discussions skills.”

During the ensuing months after the initial planning discussions, they

• Interviewed experts at Ohio University about pollutants;
• Talked to officials at the local water and sewage plant;
• Traced their area’s history;
• Kept journals;
• Used computers to chart pollutants;
• Drew maps;
• Took and printed their own photographs;
• Wrote to government officials;
• Tested wells, cisterns, and waterways in Amesville; and,
• Presented their findings to local government officials.

Testing Water in a Stream

Testing Water in a Stream

And at the end of the school year, the young scientists proudly presented their project at an Ohio University conference on democracy in public education.

The Water Chemists project was also written up in Frances Moore Lappe’s classic Diet for a Small Planet, connecting Bill Elasky’s classroom to a much broader issue than even water quality testing (shades of Flint, Michigan), to the idea of democracy.

“Among the most effective classrooms in the country are those in which teachers are encouraging students to learn by tackling real problems in their communities. One of my favorite examples is in a grammar school in Amesville, Ohio, where Bill Elasky proves that his sixth graders can plan and carry out long-term problem-solving projects, given encouragement and backup.

After a chemical spill in a nearby creek, Elasky’s students decided that they “didn’t trust the EPA.” Constituting themselves as the Amesville Sixth Grade Water Chemists, they set out to test the water themselves – and succeeded. In the process they had to divide into teams, assign tasks, plan sampling and testing times, and so on. Soon the Sixth Grade Water Chemists became the town’s water quality experts, and their neighbors were buying their water testing services. These kids are learning democracy not by memorizing distant structures of government but by ‘doing democracy.’”

And I might add, by “doing science.”

Currently Bill Elasky works as an adjunct faculty member at Ohio University in the College of Education, teaching and helping to coordinate the CARE Partnership, which George Wood started “way back in the day.” Reflecting on the Amesville Sixth-Grade Water Chemists, he said in a recent email, “They were an awesome group of kids, which is why things worked so well.” Isn’t that typical of a great teacher — giving the credit to the students?

Bill Elasky Today

Bill Elasky Today

And those students? While I don’t know if any of them went on to work in STEM fields and neither does Bill Elasky, I did run across another account by Francis Moore Lappe from an address she gave at The Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1994, that shows the impact of that sixth grade experience on their eighth grade selves.

“When these children entered the eighth grade, they were very upset that the cafeteria used plastic utensils. These were very environmentally sensitive young people by that time. So they went to the principal and said, ‘We don’t think it’s a good idea to use plastic utensils, it’s not environmentally sound.’ The principal said, ‘Well, it’s too much trouble, thank you very much but we can’t change.’ They tried again, made their case stronger, built up the facts, went in, and still didn’t get anywhere. This principal was not as smart as he could have been.

These young people then decided to boycott the cafeteria. They boycotted the cafeteria and got all their friends to do the same, and finally the principal said, ‘Okay, we’ll figure out what it takes to get metal utensils.’ Then, the most striking thing: These young people went in to the principal and said, ‘Look, we know that this boycott cost the school some money, and we want you to tell us how much because we’re willing to put on a bake sale and have a car wash in order that we can pay back the school, because it’s our school.’”

And it all gets down to this simple statement by one of those students reflecting on the water chemist experience (as reported by Lappe):

“We think what we are doing is important and fun. The importance of this project is to let people know what pollutants are in the water. The fun is that we know we are helping others. You may think we’re too young. Well, we are young, but we are trying our very best, and it works. So put your trust in us.”

Lappe concludes: “What we’re suggesting … is that once this genie of belief in self, and confidence that one can act effectively on one’s values in the public world, once that the genie is out, it cannot be put back in the bottle.”

And just perhaps, that’s how you create students eager to study STEM when they get to university.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.



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Filed under 6th grade, Bill Elasky, science teaching, STEM education, Uncategorized

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