This entry is part 9 of 22 in the series Winter - 2017

Kits give kids real science experiences

by Beth Lipscomb

As you read this, the Education and Outreach Center at CSU’s College of Natural Sciences is touching lives in many ways. Three ambitious team members, along with their student assistants, are working with faculty to create, assemble, and distribute unique tools to help pre-collegiate students learn foundational scientific principles and processes.

More than that, they’re getting those students excited about college, connecting them to mentors, and opening their eyes to career paths they might never have dreamed of.

And they’re doing it all with just one central concept: science lab kits.

How it all began

By the early 2000s, the EOC had already been offering professional development programs for K-12 science teachers for about a dozen years. As Andrew Warnock, director of the EOC, explains it, though, the center’s role has changed dramatically over time.

“In the early 1990s, there was a lot of money for lots of educational development,” he says. Teaching workshops brought as many as 60 teachers at a time – usually with stipends – and everyone left with tote bags full of materials.

In the late ’90s, national science education standards made teaching much more structured and rigid.  Schools had to start picking and choosing just what to teach. Then came standardized testing and No Child Left Behind.

“This really affected the number of teachers who could come to our workshops here,” Warnock says. “It was a national trend. Teachers had to focus on specific topics, and there was no time for anything outside of that.”

Today, attracting young teachers to professional development workshops is becoming more challenging. Their evaluations and career advancement opportunities depend on students’ textbook comprehension and test performance, so their focus is primarily on achieving those goals.

However, thanks to many collaborations with CSU faculty, the EOC is creating educational tools that teachers are “clamoring” to use with their classes, Warnock says.

What’s unique about science kits?

Warnock and EOC Assistant Director Courtney Butler have taken it upon themselves to spearhead an effort that supports teachers, with science kits designed for students from upper elementary classes through high school.

The difference with their kits is that they do it all with real data from experiments that are happening today.

Warnock and Butler collaborate with CSU scientists conducting cutting-edge research, and translate their real-life experiments to a smaller scale, so students can step into the shoes of those scientists and come up with their own conclusions.

One kit, for instance, allows students to test real soil samples that were collected immediately after the monthslong High Park Fire in the Fort Collins foothills was finally snuffed out in 2012. Students use scientifically sound observational skills to determine which samples came from intensely burned areas versus moderately burned or unburned areas.

Just like real scientists, the kids must state clear, science-based explanations for their reasoning. But unlike most every other educational experience they’ll have, no one gives them a final answer as to whether they’re right or wrong.

“Kids need to be able to understand how scientists work, and have these skills,” Butler says. “How we do science is an important part of these kits.”

And Warnock notes that as a geologist, there’s no teacher to tell him whether he’s right about theories on how ground was lifted 50 million years ago. He uses his training and observations to formulate a conclusion – then modifies it as more evidence comes forth.

Down to a science

The Education and Outreach Center has a clear system for development of educational materials — combining Andrew Warnock’s scientific background with Courtney Butler’s teaching expertise.

Butler, who also acts as director for the Colorado Science and Engineering Fair, is well versed in bringing high-minded scientific information down to a level that communicates clearly with young students.

Together, they consult with CSU scientists, write and illustrate the content, source or find ways to create custom-made tools to fit inside the kits – and then make modifications as needed, to perfect the lesson.

Kits are often loaned out to schools, but the EOC also provides “STEM Friday” sessions on the CSU campus.

Influencing students nationwide

Warnock and Butler already have created kits for use all over the United States.

One kit, developed for the National Park Service, uses materials and data from Hawaii to educate students there about the importance of conserving water. This message is of particular importance in those students’ lives right now; their region is seeing an influx of development as supplies of fresh water dwindle due to changing rainfall patterns. The kit makes use of oral tradition from the area, too, allowing the native culture to help tell the story in a way that’s familiar to students – and demonstrating a conjunction between science and culture.

Now the team is working to create a similar geographically specific kit for use in schools near the National Parks of Alaska. Students will observe changes – including volcanic events and more – by studying simulated ice cores with a method similar to that of studying tree rings. Students will add cultural history to their timeline, to see how ice core changes align (or don’t) with the arrival of new peoples to the region.

“It boils down to experiences,” says Warnock. “A lot of scientists decided to become scientists not because of science class or even a certain teacher, but because of some experience they had outside the classroom. And it’s usually in that fourth- through 10th-grade age when that can click.”

That is the experience the Education and Outreach Center is working to provide.