Kids Attack Middle School Science: Career World Outcomes for middle schoolers learn to use science to tackle real world problems
If you’re like most middle school teachers, you’ve been grappling with their “unrealistic” interest in science for as long as I can remember. So when I realized that I’d been harboring a secret admiration for middle school science, I was game to do something about it.
I decided to take on the challenge and start out simply: imagine a classroom full of students, and set them the challenge of designing an instrument that could detect tiny particles. Soon the whole class—and some of the teachers—jumped in. Our chemistry-hungry group immediately said they wanted to build an experiment that would test the effect of alcohol and alcohol molecules on water molecules. Our group was really good at dissecting and testing every detail. Unfortunately, though, we weren’t the best at math and science. Then we tried to calculate exactly how long the process would take, and we couldn’t calculate it accurately.
To really bring in the engineering element, we added engineering professor Ranjana Gopinath. “If we give them some hands-on science, engineering, and math that won’t destroy their kids’ hands, their hands will get dirty,” she said. Ranjana herself taught a little engineering, and she had the powerful tools of a physicist’s brain at her disposal. While we first focused on math and science, the important lesson she learned was that it’s okay for girls not to know everything, so long as they do a good job. This is something that I have found kids still need to hear today.
We set out to increase the chances that the middle school students would show an interest in science and engineering if they could move in that direction, but a group of sixth graders wanted to jump straight in with their real-world engineering project. Once they understood the challenges, we were delighted. Our students were really excited to build things that would actually be used. When the six students at the center had already purchased and assembled their instruments, we got some enthusiastic input from the larger group and a whole new perspective.
We had a lot of fun that day. But this wasn’t just about fun. After all, it’s important that students see there are both practical and imaginative ways to make an impact in the world—not just ways that require having advanced degrees. One of our students developed a friendlier microchip that can monitor urinary tract infections and the amount of antibiotics it takes to treat them. She got some great advice from the the faculty after they determined that one possible solution was to simply make her own chip. A fifth grader created a stronger magnet. Another built a superconductor device that can power a solar panel and was able to gather actual data about the solar cells—a discovery that gave him a certain wow factor about his work. The list goes on. The students were involved in everything from the actual building, which will be used in a database on inflammation, to the programmatic planning of the end to the first day’s epiphany about the experiments they would like to investigate.
The end result of this experiments was important. Our students were clearly excited by the experience and found it empowering to be challenged to solve problems. When the middle school students came to our office to talk about their experiences, there was a common theme: they felt that they didn’t have to be afraid of the natural limits of science in their classes, and weren’t left behind by the fact that they are intelligent and creative.
These stories never made it into our lunch box this year, but this year’s middle school students did. That’s the real reward.