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NSF Fellows Teach Math, Science in Middle Schools

March 7, 2012

EECS doctoral students Mark Calnon and Andrew Farmer are leading hands-on activities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in area middle schools to improve their communication and teaching skills while enriching STEM instruction in partner schools.Andrew Farmer works with middle school students.

They each received a one-year National Science Foundation Graduate STEM in K-12 Education (GK-12) Fellowships that provides $30,000 plus tuition and critical classroom experience for the aspiring teachers.

“Middle school is when many students seem to give up on science and math, saying ‘I'm not a math person’ or ‘I'm never going to use this’. By showing students how math and science skills apply outside the classroom, in research and decision making, we hope to ignite their curiosity and develop the ability to ask good scientific questions and conduct research themselves,” said Farmer, who works at Landon Middle school in Topeka.

In one popular lesson, Farmer divided Teresa Trauthwein’s eighth grade math class into small groups and had them create instructions for building a small Lego structure. After 15 minutes, each group dismantled their creation and passed the pieces and instructions to another group, which then rebuilt it. Afterwards, they compared pictures of the original and rebuilt structures, which usually had little in common. Farmer wanted students to see how ambiguous instructions can be. Next they worked on creating a formal language for specifying how to build a Lego structure.

“Andrew brings innovative, thought provoking problems into the classroom that challenge the students,” said Trauthwein. “Somehow, they stretch themselves and learn more than they ever thought they could. I am always amazed at the deep level of thinking he can achieve with them.

While volunteering with the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) education team, Calnon had the opportunity to advise a local middle school's Science Olympiad team on a robotics project. Through this experience, he saw firsthand the effectiveness of using robotics and other innovations in STEM education.

He has brought that creativity to Harry Purrington’s science classes at Arrowhead Middle School in Kansas City. Calnon led a lesson in tectonic plate movement fall. Calnon learned GPlates modeling software and installed it on the 30 student laptops. He asked the eighth graders to find out how far apart South America and Africa were 60 million years ago. Using the software, students could reposition the globe and watch different continents shift over time, measure the distance between continents, and watch as new crust was created.

“Mark came in, pretty early in the year, and taught all of the eighth graders how to use Powerpoint. This was after he quickly learned how to negotiate our laptops," said Purrington. “Another outstanding lesson was when he downloaded a program to show continental movement over millions of years. He did not just do this on one computer, but a classroom set! He sat in the back with 10 or more laptops around him at a time, getting them prepared for his next visit. This allowed students to manipulate the program themselves and not just watch a teacher do it.”

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