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College Enriches Public School Science Curriculum


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Senior Sam Merrett and sixth grade Life Science class

What do you get when you mix Jell-O, gumdrops, jellybeans, and licorice sticks?

Why, a 3-D model of a cell, of course. That is, if you are a sixth grader in Marcia Stewart’s life science class at Langston Middle School.

"Hands-on projects are always big hits with sixth graders," says Stewart.

Especially when they can be eaten, which the students did the next day.

"We used Jell-O for the cytoplasm, giant gum drops for the nucleus, green jelly beans for the chloroplasts, white jelly beans for the mitochondria, and strings of licorice for the cytoskeletal elements," explains Stewart.

Oberlin Assistant Professor of Biology Marta Laskowski and senior Sam Merrett worked with Stewart last summer to develop innovative ways to strengthen the science curriculum at Langston. The result was a series of hands-on lab activities that make use of everyday materials, such as Jell-O and candy. Their work was supported by the Oberlin Partnership, an alliance formed in 2000 by Oberlin College and the city of Oberlin to collaborate on solutions to problems facing the city, including improving the schools.

There were other, non-edible experiments. In the unit on energy, for example, Stewart wanted to reinforce the concept that plants convert the energy in light into another form of energy that drives cellular reactions. "Since the first step of that conversion takes place in the chloroplast, and the second in the mitochondria, we had the kids measure the amount of light absorbed by a solar panel to determine how it relates to the charge on a battery," she says.

The new methods got kids out of their seats and truly learning science.

"Before, they were limited to reading about the processes in their textbook," says Stewart. "So they really enjoy the labs. They’re engaged and excited about this new approach, as are their parents. At recent conferences, several parents related how enthusiastic their children were about the work and how they talked at length about the concepts we studied."

"Marta is a wellspring of ideas, inspiration, and knowledge," says Stewart. "I plan to bounce ideas off her and ask her for input regarding the other sixth grade science disciplines: chemistry, earth science, and technology. I have labs and activities lined up for each of these units as well."

Dennison Smith, president of the Oberlin Board of Education and professor of neuroscience at the College, is also enthusiastic about the College’s involvement in the schools.

"When the public schools and the College work together, they both profit from the experience," Smith says. "Because the school system is small, money is limited. The schools must educate a diverse student body, so it is sometimes difficult for them to do things educationally that are truly distinctive. However, with input from College faculty members, interesting initiatives like this have emerged."

The Laskowski-Stewart collaboration got its start last spring at a Langston open house. Stewart expressed her plans to beef up the life science units to support the new Ohio curriculum guidelines, and Laskowski expressed a willingness to help.

Both agree that Merrett was an invaluable aid. An environmental studies major, he shared methods he had developed during a two-month residency completed during his junior year, when he taught students at Oberlin High School about energy issues.

"That experience had a huge impact on my work for Langston," Merrett says. "It was challenging and fun to modify the lessons and techniques for a different subject and for younger students. It’s exciting that the College and the schools can work together to expand the learning experiences for students at both institutions."

Diana Roose, assistant to the Oberlin College President Nancy S. Dye, whose office funded the science pilot project, agrees: "This year has proved to be especially rewarding in the new faculty collaborations that promise to continue in the future."

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