Students Learn From Doing at STEM Night

Yoichiro Ikeda fills a test tube for a student before handing it to him. (All photos by Steve Bowman)
Yoichiro Ikeda fills a test tube for a student before handing it to him. (All photos by Steve Bowman)

Demonstrations bring science alive at Mark Twain

 
By Steve Bowman
Editor, The Brentwood Spirit
Email: bowmansj@sbcglobal.net

There’s nothing exciting about milk. To most kids it’s the boring white liquid they pour on their breakfast cereal.

But on Thursday night in the gym at Mark Twain Elementary School, several students stood at a folding table staring down at plates of milk with surprised expressions on their faces.

“Wow!” said one.

“Cool!” said another.

In his or her plate of milk each student had put a drop of food coloring, which didn’t do much. But when a drop of liquid dish detergent was added, the color suddenly spread through the milk like a swirling kaleidoscope. Guiding the students was Julie Kirkpatrick, whose daughter Madison attends the school.

“It’s a molecular reaction where soap is pushing fat molecules away and the color shows us the reaction happening,” she explained. “It’s just a pretty way to show it.”

Julie Kirkpatrick (left) watches as students add drops of food coloring and dish soap to plates of milk.
Julie Kirkpatrick (left) watches as students add drops of food coloring and dish soap to plates of milk.
A student watches as colors swirl about in a plate of milk.
A student watches as a drop of dish soap makes colors swirl about.

Kirkpatrick’s table was one of 16 set up in the gym for the Second Annual Family STEM Night. Dozens of students and their family members spent an hour moving from table to table learning scientific principles through hands-on discovery. It’s part of the district’s initiative to enhance learning in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

The event was organized by Theresa Reynolds, now in her second year as the district’s Elementary Science Specialist. It supports the district’s efforts in Project Lead the Way, a statewide initiative to improve engineering education. She recently finished training Mark Twain and McGrath teachers in using the project’s curriculum.

“We want to move students away from the textbook approach and toward actually doing science,” said Reynolds. “We looked at lots of different programs this summer and we found we really liked Project Lead the Way. The goal behind it is to get students into a more hands-on approach to science and learning. Make it more project-based.”

Theresa Reynolds is in her second year as the
Theresa Reynolds is in her second year as the Brentwood School District’s Elementary Science Specialist.

Reynolds said most of those staffing the tables on Thursday were Mark Twain parents who work in scientific fields and students from Brentwood High School and Nerinx Hall.

One station was led by James Vandervoort, a mechanical engineer. He helped students discover that not all light in the universe is visible with the naked eye. He pointed an infrared TV remote control at them, which was invisible until they viewed it through a video camera.

By looking through a video camera, a student sees an otherwise invisible beam of infrared light emitting from a TV remote control held by James Vandervoort.
By looking through a video camera, a student sees an otherwise invisible beam of infrared light emitting from a TV remote control held by James Vandervoort.
James Vandervoort explains the many types of light in the universe.
James Vandervoort shares a graphic that illustrates the many types of light waves on Earth, both seen and unseen.

Another station was staffed by Yoichiro Ikeda, a Mark Twain father who works as a scientist at Washington University. He had students hold a test tube containing a solution that dramatically changed colors whenever he added substances that altered its pH balance.

Yoichiro Ikeda adds a drop that will change the pH balance, and color, of the solution in a student's test tube.
Yoichiro Ikeda adds a drop that will change the pH balance, and color, of the solution in a student’s test tube.

One station had students reassemble the bones of a human hand, in the form of paper puzzle pieces, using an illustration of an X-ray as a guide.

“We want students to understand both structure and function because they’re intertwined,” explained Reynolds. “If it’s not properly structured, it won’t function. So if the student doesn’t construct the hand bones correctly, they have to build a cast for their hand.”

Reynolds believes students will learn scientific concepts more quickly if they’re provided ways to participate in the discovery. That much is evidenced by her email messages, which end with the William Yeats quote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

The Second Annual STEM Night was held in Mark Twain's gym.
The Second Annual Family STEM Night was held in Mark Twain’s gym.
Mark Twain student Avery White finishes attaching the rubber bands that simulate how arm muscles work.
Student Avery White finishes attaching the rubber bands that simulate how arm muscles work.
Avery White inflates a model of human lungs made with straws and Zip-lock baggies.
Avery White inflates a model of human lungs made with straws and Ziploc bags.
Ellen Michael gets students started at a station titled "polydrons," which illustrates engineering concepts.
Ellen Michael gets students started at a station titled “polydrons,” which illustrates engineering concepts.

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