By Bonnie Blankinship
Learning by Doing
By Bonnie Blankinship
Third-graders in Sandusky, Ohio, spend time outdoors in a rain garden closely observing seasonal changes to their “personal” plants; teachers in school districts across northwest Ohio work with Bowling Green State University faculty to learn new techniques for improving students’ math abilities while deepening their own comprehension; and future teachers in BGSU classrooms conduct science and math research to create dynamic learning experiences for their eventual students.
BGSU is leading a sea change across northwest Ohio in the way K-12 students, college students and University faculty learn about and teach STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and part of that change involves imparting a sense of excitement and discovery. From kid “citizen-scientists” collecting reliable data on frogs and butterflies as part of national projects, to BGSU students preparing to work in sustainable energy fields, the new approach is hands-on, focused on strengthening knowledge, and designed to provide citizens a sense of STEM competency and ownership.
The University is taking a 360-degree approach to accomplishing this grand goal with a variety of initiatives and partnerships that extend its mission far beyond the classroom walls. The work is receiving substantial support from private companies and state and federal grants. Many of the projects and activities are coordinated by BGSU’s Northwest Ohio Center of Excellence in STEM Education (NWO), directed by Dr. Robert Midden, a professor of chemistry and advocate for engaged learning.
One of the most innovative and large-scale projects is iEvolve with STEM, which affects more than 3,000 students in grades three through eight in underserved communities in northwest Ohio. Funded by a $7.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the five-year project works with Perkins Local Schools and Sandusky City Schools as core partners. The first cohort is now finishing its third year.
Students and their teachers collaborate with scientists at BGSU and other partnering colleges and universities and nonprofit agencies in a groundbreaking new curriculum that puts science at the center of all disciplines. Special emphasis is placed on hands-on research that contributes to issues facing society, such as water quality, the preservation of species, public health and agriculture.
“Participating in research is a powerful motivator,” Midden said. “It provides an engaged classroom experience and a much richer way to learn science. Students learn how the natural world behaves in a meaningful context that has value to others as well as themselves.”
Teachers have embraced the concept and the collaboration. “Our scientists are awesome,” one wrote at the end of last year. “First of all, they are there whenever we need them, whether it be an email or on site. They were able to come into my classroom in particular, and taught my children about composting. We were able to then create our own little compost investigation that was ongoing.”The iEvolve initiative is just one of many outreach and partnership programs led by BGSU faculty to improve STEM teaching among K-12 educators.
The growing thirst for STEM among the public is almost palpable, and BGSU is providing the community a big gulp of it at the annual STEM in the Park. Now in its seventh year, the free September event finds families flocking to the Perry Field House for a day of activities like making their own edible DNA and butterfly larvae necklaces, handling exotic reptiles from the Herpetology Lab and testing parachutes, guided by BGSU faculty and students. Community partners play an important role and have included NASA, the Toledo Zoo and Imagination Station. More than 4,000 people took part in the fun day last year, and BGSU is preparing for even more this year because the event has grown steadily since it began. Kids can continue their scientific explorations with take-home activity cards.
“They were delighted by the science,” one of the return exhibitors said. “They always want to make whatever we offer. These are children who like to do things. Many have ideas for how they want to modify the project to make it just like they want it to be.”
This is totally in keeping with the goal of empowering students to comprehend STEM knowledge and use it to explore new possibilities.
On campus, the focus is on improving STEM competency for students and education faculty. Soon they will have improved facilities for achieving that. Moseley Hall is being restored to its original role as the science teaching center.
The planned renovation will redefine STEM education and research for the next generation of BGSU students. It will allow both science majors and undergraduate non-science majors who are satisfying undergraduate science lab requirements to participate in classroom and lab courses in flexible and collaborative new spaces that support innovative, research-driven approaches to science teaching and learning. The $23 million project, funded primarily by state capital funds, will provide active-learning classrooms outfitted with the latest in classroom technology, along with teaching labs for medical technology, biology, anatomy and physiology, and chemistry.
Dr. Jeffrey Miner, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, which will occupy two of the four floors, said, “This will give us the opportunity to teach small classes instead of the larger ones we now have in the Life Sciences Building. In addition to the new labs, there will also be more open spaces that will enable more interaction between faculty and students before and after lab classes, which will extend the dialogue. These all-new facilities will also allow us to be more experimental in teaching the foundations of biology.”
Moving from physical spaces to psychological ones, BGSU faculty are also learning new teaching methods that promote student success and empowerment. A workshop for faculty on design thinking addressed a common stumbling block to success in STEM learning: fear of math. Dr. Moira Van Staaden, professor of biology, hosted the event, which was part of the yearlong Project SEA Change.
Funded by a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the project aims to improve STEM teaching.
Faculty learned to use design thinking to understand students’ specific difficulties and devise responsive lesson plans. The overarching goal is to improve students’ quantitative literacy, a key skill in all of STEM.
Other faculty are exploring and adopting a growth mindset: that is, the belief that you can learn though hard work and dedication, and that abilities are not merely something you are born with or not. Current research is showing that when students and faculty internalize this belief, much greater success can be achieved.
College of Education and Human Development faculty Drs. Gabriel Matney and Jonathan Bostic are applying this same thinking to younger children. In addition to working with teachers in various school districts, they organize the annual Bowling Green Council of Teachers of Mathematics Math Camps, where students learn the connections between math and the world in an atmosphere of fun and play. “You can really see how excited schoolchildren can get about math,” Midden said. “The camp setting goes a long way to reducing anxiety and boosting competence and confidence.”
BGSU is focused on the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering and math and continues its mission to create an educated population well equipped for a changing world.