Redefining the Classroom

Dr. Robert Midden aims to create “citizen-scientists” at BGSU and throughout the region.

Bill Nye, also known as “The Science Guy,” said, “There’s nothing I believe in more strongly than getting young people interested in science and engineering, for a better tomorrow, for all humankind.”

That belief in the importance of STEM (sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and the need to improve it also drives Dr. Robert Midden as he leads the charge in revamping STEM education in northwest Ohio. He is working with BGSU students and schools throughout the region to expand students’ science learning beyond the classroom, allowing them to become “citizen-scientists.”

Midden, an associate professor of chemistry at BGSU, started out at Johns Hopkins University teaching in a doctoral program. His classes consisted mostly of graduate students and high-achieving undergraduates.

“While it was enjoyable and worthwhile, it was relatively easy,” he said. “In a program like this, you have students who are well prepared and know what they want to learn and how to learn. You barely have to point them in the right direction.”

In contrast, his first teaching assignment at BGSU was Introduction to Chemistry, a general education course taken by mostly nursing students and education majors. The course had a traditional teaching format that involved textbook lessons and lectures covering the fundamentals of chemistry.

“The students struggled to learn the material and didn’t understand why they had to learn it,” he said. “I knew there had to be a better way to do this.”

Midden started introducing topics of current interest into the class. He asked students what is responsible for ozone depletion and how they could prevent it. Then, he drilled down to the chemistry that could answer the questions. He also introduced discussions about climate change, global warming and the AIDS crisis.

“I figured if I had asked questions with a lot of public interest, the students would be engaged. It worked, but not as much as I thought it would or would have liked,” he said.

So Midden expanded his issue-based approach by taking his class to see a real problem in Wood County – the possibility of abandoned oil fields contaminating private water wells.

“I challenged the students to see how many wells were contaminated. It’s a real problem that affects real people. We gave students at the start of their college education a way to do something that matters to real people, and that got every student in the class interested, engaged and motivated,” Midden explained.

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One of Midden’s largest projects, called iEvolve with STEM (Inquiry and Engagement to Invigorate and Optimize Learning for Everyone with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), has attracted more than $7 million in funding to take his citizen-scientist concept to two K-12 school districts.

He also invited staff from the Wood County Health Department and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to verify the reality of the situation and its severity, and to explain the basic concepts involved.

The post-class evaluations gave Midden all the motivation he needed to forge ahead with this type
of teaching.

“Virtually every student said they enjoyed the course and found it worthwhile, and what was most valuable was the opportunity to do something to help others,” he said.  “When students learn through experience – especially if that experience involves them participating in something they perceive has real value to real people – then they profess a desire to learn more about that topic. That creates a more positive attitude and greater interest, perhaps even a future career.”

This revelation led to the primary concept on which one of Midden’s largest projects, called iEvolve with STEM (Inquiry and Engagement to Invigorate and Optimize Learning for Everyone with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), is based. Expanding on his efforts with BGSU students, the project involves elementary school students participating in citizen-scientist projects that are critical to the health of the environment and their community.

Funded by a $7.28 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the five-year project involves two K-12 school districts in Erie County between Toledo and Cleveland as core partners. Perkins Local Schools and Sandusky City Schools students in grades 3-8 and their teachers will collaborate with scientists at BGSU and other partnering colleges and universities and nonprofit agencies in this groundbreaking new curriculum.

Dr. Eugene Sanders ’80, superintendent and CEO of Sandusky City Schools, said he is “delighted to be a part of the National Science Foundation-funded grant focusing on citizen-scientists,” and is excited about the idea of “merging theory and practice, in which our students can learn science and apply it in a very practical way. Extending learning beyond the classroom into the community will be a great opportunity, and having one of the Great Lakes in our backyard presents a unique educational experience for our students.”

“We want to improve science education by allowing even younger children to participate in real research that addresses scientific issues that have a bearing on the health and welfare of people in their communities and elsewhere,” Midden said. “The goal is to give them a focus and a context for their learning that helps them make connections that deepen their understanding.”

    The basis of iEvolve with STEM is that science becomes the nexus for the study of everything, from language arts and reading, mathematics and social sciences to the arts.

With the Monarch Watch project, for example (one of the research projects), students can also study the social, political, economic and geographical factors surrounding the butterflies’ existence. They can improve their language skills by reading and by writing about their research findings.

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These projects add meaning and enhance the development of knowledge students will need to solve complex problems.

Three of the research projects are national and international in scope: GLOBE, a large-scale, international environmental research project, includes students in more than 110 countries; Monarch Watch, and FrogWatch USA. Some of the projects also have state or local connections. For instance, the Monarch project, will also connect with the Ohio Lepidopterists Long Term Monitoring of Butterflies, and a rain garden project will connect with the Erie County Soil and Water Conversation District’s ongoing rain garden initiative.

Midden said reaction from the teachers so far has been overwhelmingly positive in the face of this major curriculum change.

“This is a stressful time for Ohio teachers as demands on them increase and they are being evaluated by a more rigorous and complex system that depends heavily on students’ state test performance,” he said. “When you talk about doing something new and different it can be overwhelming, but these teachers are responding positively and are excited to start teaching science in a very different way.”

The program will add students in grades 6-8 starting in 2015. The research projects will culminate each year with an annual research symposium at which students will present their research results to the community and collaborating scientists. There is also a rigorous research regimen in place to gather data about changes in student interest in STEM, engagement, motivation and learning changes as they participate in this type of research.

While this approach has been implemented on a smaller scale, Midden is not aware of any other school district in the country that has adopted citizen science as the major aspect of teaching and learning integrated throughout and across the curriculum.

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Samples collected by Midden’s BGSU citizen-scientists are analyzed and added to the team’s growing body of work concerning healthy waterways in Ohio.

Midden’s development of iEvolve is part of his duties as director of the Northwest Ohio Center for Excellence in STEM Education (NWO). He is tasked with the monumental job of advancing STEM education for people of all ages. To help fund that mission he has received more than $18 million in grants from federal and state agencies and private foundations.

NWO serves the 29 counties of northwest Ohio and involves partnerships with most of the higher education institutions, many K-12 school districts, as well as numerous businesses and nonprofit organizations throughout the region. The center provides a variety of services including professional development, hosting annual symposia and student STEM competitions, administering multiple STEM college student scholarship programs, and sponsoring other events aimed at promoting interest and success in STEM disciplines such as the wildly successful STEM in the Park at BGSU.

“He directs our center with a vision and passion that is unmatched,” said Susan Sterns, assistant director of programming and development for NWO. “He’s always able to speak fluently about STEM education in our area. He knows everybody, always knows what’s going on and he knows how to go about our mission and achieve it. He’s easy to work with, and he has a drive and passion for this mission.”

Midden’s belief in citizen-scientists is one of his passions, but what makes the concept so effective? Midden said it’s pretty simple – students learn a lot better when they are involved through experience and not just through reading or listening.

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Midden’s student team has developed a process that could reduce the detrimental environmental impact of the liquid manure widely used on factory farms throughout the state.

“What has been noticed is that if you sit down and talk to a student about what they learn, actually interview them in person, you often find that they have very serious and deep misconceptions about how the natural world actually functions,” he said.

Midden pointed to a series of videos created by the National Science Foundation called “A Private Universe.”

One segment shows a sixth grade teacher and her class. They interviewed students before the lesson on what causes the seasons of the Earth and most of them gave answers with several misconceptions. The teacher taught the lesson, interacted with the students and had them answer questions. She was convinced afterwards that her students had learned the concept. When they were interviewed again, all of those students had retained those misconceptions.

Midden said knowledge gleaned from reading or lectures often doesn’t stick with students very long and doesn’t allow students to process or use that knowledge in any way. He feels knowledge that is built when students confront the natural Earth leads to a more efficient correction of these misconceptions and builds learning more effectively.

“This type of learning engages higher cognitive skills and develops deeper, more robust understandings,” he said. “They are understandings that last longer and that connect more thoroughly to other concepts and generate a firmer body of knowledge that students can employ more successfully for future learning.”

Even more than two decades after first coming to BGSU, he hasn’t wavered from the lessons he learned from teaching those introductory chemistry courses. Midden still works very closely with undergraduates on various research projects, typically investigating major issues threatening the environmental integrity and economic vitality of Lake Erie and other Ohio lakes, rivers and streams.
One of his current research projects has the potential to revolutionize how factory farms dispose of their liquid manure. One of the main concerns is the large amount of diluted manure these farms produce. Midden wondered what would happen if the nutrients that make manure so good for the soil could be removed from this liquid and sold as a low-cost, high-yield fertilizer?

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Evidence shows that students engage higher learning skills and develop deeper understanding when working to solve problems in the community. The manure dilute project also has technology transfer potential.

“Crop fertilizer is one of the most expensive parts of growing crops, so that represents value, but because of the high water content it is expensive to transport that material very far relative to its value,” Midden explained. “If you apply more nutrients to the land than can be absorbed by the crops, when it rains or snow melts it can be washed into the waterways.”

If most of the water in the dilute manure is eliminated, Midden said, you are left with material that is much lighter and cheaper to move. His student team has developed a process that binds the nutrients in the manure together so it can be filtered out as a solid. If the treatment process works as well as he hopes, the water can simply be released with no harm to the environment.

The project has received considerable interest from state legislators, the agriculture industry and environmental groups. Midden believes it also has great potential for economic development and technology transfer.

“One aspect of our work is aimed at minimizing the cost of this treatment process. If we can keep the cost low, this method of dealing with the manure could be economically competitive with other methods of simply applying it or transporting it elsewhere,” said Midden. “In fact, one hope is that we could produce material so valuable it could be sold and generate more income than the process even costs. So it could be a profitable way to deal with this and thereby provide a strong financial incentive to use this alternative method that would greatly reduce the environmental impact.”

The students who worked on this research during the spring 2014 semester reinforced Midden’s belief in the importance of having undergraduates conduct research that has substantive outcomes.
Devoney Miller, a second-year student from Westerville, Ohio, majoring in middle childhood education, expressed her excitement in being a part of a project where her work could have a major impact on the region.

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Not only is Shermaine Hutchins involved in Midden’s dilute manure research, he is spending summer 2014 as a research assistant at the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. He is assisting with an investigation of defects in T-cell receptor signaling and repertoires, and clinical and pathophysiologic analysis of patients with known genetic diseases associated with atopy. Acceptance into this highly selective program is considered one of the highest honors for any undergraduate interested in science and medicine. Hutchins is the only student from Ohio selected for this program and the only undergraduate student working in this particular lab.

“I wanted to do something where my results would go someplace bigger than just Bowling Green,” she said.

Shermaine Hutchins, a junior transfer student from Owens State Community College majoring in biochemistry, echoed those sentiments. He had the opportunity to work with Midden as part of a summer research program and considers him a mentor and instrumental in his decision to pursue a bachelor’s degree at BGSU.

“His work has many real world applications that directly affect the state of Ohio and its water systems,” Hutchins said. “His teaching style opened up a whole new world of science and learning that I had not experienced before. I have learned many new research techniques and gained experience with data collecting, sampling and processing that will help me as I continue my studies and advance in the field of biochemistry.”

“It can be called service learning and citizen science research, but I think marrying those and integrating those concepts has the most powerful potential in science education.             

Students are highly engaged when they feel that what they are doing has real value and is meeting the needs of others, which is at the heart of service learning. In citizen science research, students learn science by actually doing science, not just reading about it. In this approach to education, students learn how to engage in action that meets others’ needs and they experience the personal reward of doing so. Imagine that this is a universal outcome of all of our education: focusing on learning so that we can do the things that meet the needs of others. That could be the heart and driver of a successful society,” Midden concluded.