What do you get when you mix Jell-O, gumdrops, jellybeans, and licorice
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
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
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
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."