Program challenges seventh-graders to learn methodology
Methow Valley seventh-graders have been setting fire to wood chips, melting bismuth, testing the brightness of light, and hitting baseballs with wooden and metal bats — and then carefully documenting and analyzing their results.
The “Be A Scientist” unit at Liberty Bell High School takes an enriched approach to the traditional science fair, pairing students with 11 scientists from the community as mentors.
The mentors came from diverse backgrounds, including fisheries biologists, engineers, retired science teachers and microbiologists. Working with mentors gives each student individual attention and allows them to design experiments that are more quantitative, rigorous and scientifically valid, said Liberty Bell International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program Coordinator Matt Hinckley, who helped coordinate the projects in Randi Williams’ science class.
Working with mentors also accomplishes another important goal — introducing students to the wide range of careers in science, Hinckley said.
Mentor Chuck Timchalk, who worked as a biomedical scientist and toxicologist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland before he retired, shared with the students his lifelong experiences with science, from his own science-fair projects to work analyzing chemical exposures at the lab.
The projects helped students develop and understand of the scientific process, said mentor Joe Weirich, restoration coordinator for the Methow Beaver Project. Weirich told the students he’s always been interested in science, but that his interest evolved over the years. He thought he’d work in sports medicine, but his curiosity about the outdoors drew him to biology and natural science.
Seventh grade is a perfect time for this type of research, because students have the math background to support the research and can graph results and do statistical analysis, Hinckley said.
“It’s immensely important for the students to understand throughout junior high and high school that so much of what we do in science classes can be distilled down to testable questions,” Hinckley said. “The labs they do in science classes are closely aligned to the kind of work that actual scientists do.”
Timchalk helped a student analyze the colors that resulted from heating different types of salts and metals. Although the students don’t have a background in chemistry yet, the experiment introduced ways of identifying unknowns, Timchalk said. Students learn from results, including cases where an experiment didn’t turn out as expected, he said.
Another significant difference from the traditional science-fair project is that the whole thing is done at school and in class, meaning parents aren’t tearing their hair out trying to help their kids finish at home, Hinckley said.
Students started research and planning for their projects in January. All the projects had to have a testable idea and quantitative data.
Each student had an individual project, but they also helped each other conduct experiments. A couple of weeks ago in class, a group of girls filled balloons with baking soda and baking powder, slid the balloon onto the mouth of a beaker filled with vinegar, and then measured the balloon as it inflated.
One boy made what he called “elephant toothpaste,” mixing yeast and dish detergent with hydrogen peroxide to generate a sea of colorful, foamy liquid. Another student measured plant growth in plants nourished with tap water, distilled water, saltwater and hot chocolate.
In the school’s batting cage, students took turns swinging wooden and metal bats to measure the speed and exit velocity of the ball, using a motion sensor on the bat and a radar device.
One student was melting bismuth, a crystalline white metal, in a saucepan, as mentor Roy Reiber helped him analyze the crystals. Reiber taught biology, chemistry, physics, human physiology and math to Methow students for 31 years, until his retirement in 2001.
Other projects measured how contact with different types of metal affected the brightness of light, and the impact of temperature on battery strength.
Presenting the data
Not only did students have to propose a hypothesis and test it, but they also had to present their data to the class. The approach is similar to what professional scientists do when thinking through a process, Timchalk said. That’s the exciting aspect of this type of learning, compared to memorization of facts, where there’s less opportunity to explore and use the scientific method, he said.
Many students are already intrigued by science, but working with them helped show how diverse science careers can be, Weirich said. A student who researched how people perceive flavors by giving different types of juice to blindfolded classmates was exploring perceptions and other facets of psychology, Weirich said.
Another student was fascinated by fire science. The student tested different types of wood by setting wood chips on fire in a tiny crucible. His project design included safety measures. “The students were impressive — they had a lot of aptitude for their age,” Weirich said.
Reiber put in a plug for volunteer mentors in the March newsletter of the Kiwanis Club of Winthrop. “It’s five 90-minute periods of planning, experimenting and then describing to their class what they found … I would encourage members who can spell science to consider volunteering next year. You’ll enjoy the kids and learn something,” he said.
A $1,250 grant from the Public School Funding Alliance allowed the school to purchase supplies for the experiments. The funding largely eliminated constraints on what they could do, Hinckley said.
The Be A Scientist project comes from Community Resources for Science, a California nonprofit that supports science by drawing on the expertise of community scientists, Hinckley said.