July 6, 2010

Bringing new blood to science classes

Want to get the attention of 11th grade chemistry students on the first day of class? Then ask them to investigate a suspicious death that occurred 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 as part of PRISM: Problems and Research to Integrate Science and Mathematics. A collaboration between Emory and Atlanta area schools, PRISM pairs Emory graduate students with public high school teachers to develop and implement problem-based learning (PBL) and other innovative teaching techniques into science classes.

In the case of the body on the lab floor, the students have to deduce what killed the victim, simply 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.”

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

By using science to solve problems in case studies, the students learn the material while also seeing how their lessons apply to real life.  “I think it really opens their eyes,” Sidaras says.

The experience changed Sidaras’ perspective as well. “It gave me connections with people who have not taken a traditional route in academia,” she says. “Now I see that a job for high school science curriculum development and evaluation would be more fulfilling to me. I definitely see it as something I’d like to pursue.”

About 100 students have worked alongside teachers in Atlanta public schools since PRISM began in 2003. The program is funded by a National Science Foundation grant. PRISM is now seeking an additional NSF grant to expand the program, with a focus on helping public school teachers develop lessons relating to evolution.

Tenth-grade students turn periodic table into a rap song

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