Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bringing new blood to high school science

Murder or a grisly accident? Psychology grad student Sabrina Sidaras (on floor) helps high school students learn to think like scientists. Photo by Tiffany Smith.

Want to get the attention of 11th grade chemistry students on the first day of class? Then ask them to investigate a suspicious death in the lab. Set the scene, including yellow police tape, broken vials of chemicals, fake blood and a “corpse” splayed on the floor.

“The first time I did it, I broke a smile,” says Sabrina Sidaras, an Emory psychology graduate student who played dead at Cedar Grove High School. “I didn’t realize how funny the students would be.”

Sidaras joined forces with Cedar Grove science teacher Tiffany Smith last Spring for PRISM, a collaboration of Emory and Atlanta area schools. The program pairs Emory graduate students with middle school and high school teachers to develop and implement problem-based learning (PBL) and other innovative teaching techniques into science classrooms.

In the case of the body on the lab floor, the students have to deduce what killed the victim by observing the evidence. “The students love it,” Sidaras says. “They’re used to coming in a class and sitting down, but this presents them with a whole different experience. They get excited, talking to each other about what may have happened and doing an investigation.”

Click on comic to enlarge:
Neuroscience graduate student Kate O'Toole created a comic strip to introduce teens to her research of ion channels.

PBL lesson plans developed by PRISM have gripping names, like “Dial M for Molecule,” “Adding Fuel to the Fire,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Sealed with a Kiss” and “Got Gas?”

PRISM aims to first get the students interested, then help them learn the science and understand how it applies to real life. “I think it really opens their eyes,” Sidaras says.

The experience changed her perspective as well. Instead of following a traditional career path in academia, Sidaras now hopes to get a job developing high school science curriculums.

Qing Shao, a graduate student in biophysics, was paired with David Wetty, who teaches 10th-grade physics at South Atlanta High School. “He’s very dynamic, and he helped me become a better communicator,” Shao says. “I learned to be patient, and to explain things in a way that everyone can understand.”

When a student who used to sleep at the back of the class started paying attention, she knew she’d made a breakthrough. “He was actually very smart,” she says.
Tenth-grade students turned the periodic table into a rap song and video. Click here to see it.

PRISM lessons, which can involve anything from Spiderman to rap music, were a big culture shock for Shao, a native of China. “In China, you can have 70 students in a class,” she says. “Everybody is very quiet and never moves. The teacher writes things on the board and the students take notes.”

She says she enjoyed PRISM and problem-based learning as much as the high school kids. “In the future, if I get a chance to contribute something, maybe I can bring some PBL to China,” she says. “It’s really very fun.”

About 100 Emory students have participated in PRISM since the program began in 2003 through a National Science Foundation grant. Emory is applying for additional funds to expand the program, with a focus on teaching evolution.

High school students thrive in lab culture
Rappers find their elements

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