Finding a path to scientific discovery
By Bonnie Blankinship
It’s an unlikely setting in which to find a group of high school science teachers: gathered around tables in a concrete-floored, industrial style building, where a miniature Vietnamese pig snorts happily in her pen nearby, baby chicks and two pregnant Flemish giant rabbits share another pen and various types of mushrooms flourish in containers.
And that’s just one small area of the rambling Frank Dick Natural Science and Technology Center (NSTC), a Toledo Public Schools vocational school adjacent to the Toledo Botanical Garden, located at 5561 Elmer Drive.
But the unusual space is a wonderland for students to learn about the natural world, and a perfect setting for teachers to learn about how to guide and inspire the students to conduct original research. The teachers, from NSTC and Springfield High School, are part of a project led by Bowling Green State University whose aim is to increase the number of underrepresented students participating in the Ohio Junior Science and Humanities Symposium (OJSHS) in March and engage students in scientific research and STEM studies, showing them they could have successful careers as STEM professionals.
The teachers and BGSU directors Dr. Emilio Duran, a professor in the BGSU School of Teaching and Learning, and Susan Stearns, assistant director for programing and development of the Northwest Ohio Center for Excellence in STEM Education (NWO), have been meeting regularly since the beginning of September, putting in long hours after the school day to make the project a success.
“It’s really important, and one of the four elements of the program, to have the bulk of the teachers in the same building so they can plan and work together,” Duran said of the frequent group meetings.
“It’s a very big commitment,” Springfield biology teacher Marty Perlaky said. “But the opportunity we can provide to our students is bigger than the commitment. It makes me a better teacher, but the real driving force behind why we get involved and why the BGSU professors write the grants is to make sure underprivileged and underserved kids get chances.”
The NSTC is participating for the second year in the program, and its participating teachers from last year, Bryan Ellis, Laura Schetter and Stephen Oswanski, are mentoring their new Springfield High School faculty colleagues Perlaky, Austin Baker, Stephanie Mahoney, Coti Klima, McKenna Reitz, and Matt Lucas, along with first-time NSTC participant Natalie Cook.
BGSU will provide scientists and other mentors for the students.
“We hope to have about 125 kids participating,” Perlaky said of the Springfield contingent. NSTC anticipates another 100 of its students will take part. The goal of the project is to have 200 or more students in all.
The University received $200,000 in funding, administered through NWO, from the Army Educational Outreach Program (AEOP), in collaboration with Battelle, which aims to address the “clear and alarming erosion in the nation’s STEM capabilities, evident in both the skills gap plaguing major industries and students’ lagging achievement in mathematics and science compared to peers around the world.”
BGSU is one of only two organizations nationwide to receive the grant funding for a second year.
On a recent evening, the teachers shared dinner while Dr. Jodi Haney explained the expectations of the Ohio Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, how to frame research questions and objectives and complete each required section of the posters the students will make about their projects. Posters from the previous year’s NSTC students’ projects made good examples, and the center teachers also provided insight.
Haney, a BGSU professor emeritus of environmental science and teaching and learning, is a noted expert in hands-on, experiential learning in the STEM disciplines.
“By using this poster template and breaking it down into easily understandable parts, we can reduce the stress and fear the students might feel,” Haney told the teachers. “We want to make them feel good about doing science by taking away the judging aspect and letting them feel the joy of discovery. It’s a growth mindset.”
“The true heroes in this are the teachers,” said Duran, the principal investigator for the AEOP grant. “They work before, during and after school and on weekends on this. They strive to make the research relevant to the students and show its worth so they can feel pride. Also, generally teachers are not trained to be researchers, so we are giving them the support and skills they need to lead the students.”
In addition, all participating teachers will be certified in Global Learning Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE), an international science education program that promotes worldwide participation in data collection, data sharing and the scientific process — helping to foster not only the next generation of STEM professionals but also citizen scientists.
Duran, whose background is in biology as well as education, has also been director of the Ohio Junior Science and Humanities Symposium for 15 years and has been involved in numerous experiential learning initiatives in the sciences.
“But this is such a special project,” he said. “Some of the students who participated last year said it was the most meaningful thing they’d ever done in their lives. It really built their self-esteem and their confidence. It was transformational.
“It’s very powerful because the students have the choice of what they want to research, so these are authentic, student-driven projects. The grant also provides $200 per person for supplies and equipment, so they can actually do the work.”
Students so far have expressed interest in everything from astronomy to DNA to psychology to drones (one of which the NSTC has, for agricultural research). In addition to the resources of the Natural Science and Technology Center, Springfield has an area of wetlands behind its football fields that can serve as an excellent learning environment, Stearns said.
“Right now, we’re getting the students thinking about what they might like to do,” Perlaky said. “You never know where someone might go with it. The topics are all very self-directed and motivated, so they really have a stake in it. These are not science fair projects where the results are already known. These students are trying to find out things nobody knows, and we’ll find the right mentor to work with them.”
All these factors are extra important in schools where some students face tremendous economic and social challenges and disadvantages, Duran said.
NSTC urban agriculture teacher Bryan Ellis is a passionate advocate for the students and for giving them — many of whom have never been exposed — a better understanding of the natural world.
He is teaching them not only conventional methods of farming, raising tilapia, cultivating mushrooms, forestry, aquaculture, botany and more, “but also the newer and more sustainable practices,” he said. “We’re looking for the next great way of growing things. We have an inquiry-based science program.”
While they learn skills that prepare them for jobs, his students are also conducting experiments on such questions as whether invasive plants might actually sequester carbon in a way that’s beneficial to native plants and which light spectrum most benefits the growth of hops.
Duran described NSTC’s Ellis, Schetter and Oswanski as “independent thinkers,” and all are energetic, enthusiastic proponents of the goals of the AEOP program.
“We were thrilled when we learned we had received a second round of funding so we could bring in even more students,” Stearns said. “We witnessed last year how enthusiastic the students were and how they embraced the program. The teachers’ relationship with them is really wonderful. They’ve even done activities like having evening campfires — these are special things you don’t see very often.”