Math and Maritime Place-Based Learning – M2BPL Re-thinks Math Workshop

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Math and Maritime Place-Based Learning

Project Photo, Math and Maritime Place-Based Learning
Project Photo, Math and Maritime Place-Based Learning

Rig up the mast, batten down the hatch and come sail away with the educators at the Blue Heron School in Port Townsend, Washington as they embark on their exciting project: Math and Maritime Place-Based Learning – M²PBL. The district’s Maritime Discovery Schools Initiative (MDSI), implemented in 2014, is guiding their transformation by encouraging teachers to change instructional pedagogy, increase student engagement, and experience connections between classrooms and business partners. This proposal develops 30 teachers over three years.

What exactly is the Math and Maritime Place-Based Learning – M2PBL?

Project Photo, Math and Maritime Place-Based Learning
Project Photo, Math and Maritime Place-Based Learning

Research has shown these educators that students benefit highly from using a Math Workshop (MW) model.

When executed successfully, MW models support a culture of underlying beliefs:

  • all students are capable of quality thinking;
  • participation through hands-on activities and discourse builds student thinking;
    and
  • through true engagement, all young minds can make real sense of mathematics.

An engaging environment is also the premise for Project Based Learning (PBL), where students use 21st century skills to learn collaboratively while working on projects to benefit themselves and others. The M²PBL proposed a structure for K-8 teachers to collaborate and design sense-making math environments tailor made for their students.

Through deepening knowledge of the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSSM) – particularly in Number and Operations, Measurement, and Geometry – teacher teams (K-2, 3-5, 6-8) focused on:

1) Number Talks (NT), a workshop element where students apply and verbally share strategies to solve and improve mental computations (number fluency),
and
2) PBL projects to apply students’ growing math strategies and conceptual knowledge. The MDSI promotes community partnerships between the school district and maritime-related industries.

Project Photo, Math and Maritime Place-Based Learning
Project Photo, Math and Maritime Place-Based Learning

As exciting as this is for the teachers, when the students get involved it brings it to another level. The educators are partnering with Port Townsend Sails, a local business specializing in “quality sails for traditional and modern rigs.” Teachers, students, and employees will collaborate to explore authentic mathematics on-site in the sail loft. There, and in classrooms, student mathematicians will count and measure to possibly build boats, design sails, and and/or navigate!

Project Photo, Math and Maritime Place-Based Learning
Project Photo, Math and Maritime Place-Based Learning

What were the goals for M²PBL?

They had two primary goals to accomplish in year one.  They wanted answers to the following questions:

  • How do Number Talks increase the quality of students’ number fluency?
  • Does authentic application of number fluency deepen student learning in project-based mathematics?

Eleven teachers initially met for professional learning in an elementary group and an intermediate group; each grade level met for two full days (early fall and mid-winter).

Those teachers recorded 10 half-day visits into classrooms (using a substitute) which totaled to around 15-20 visits arranged during planning times and/or with colleagues to “step out” for a short period to observe.  One teacher also requested a grade level team observation one morning, so three teachers not technically a part of the grant this year joined in on observations of Number Talks.  This was a productive way to share knowledge around fluency outside of the core group.  Teacher texts, classroom fluency instructional materials, and PBL supplies were purchased. Items included: student journals, chart paper/markers, wood (for boats), bird feeders, bird ID texts, meter tapes, weights, calculators (specifically for order of operations), and math manipulatives for Family Math Night (dice, spinners, etc.).  There, two classes taught fluency activities to parent/students, and the activities went home for continued learning. In-kind donations included dowels (masts), sail cloth (from PT Sails), sand paper/wood pieces for sanding blocks from the high school shop.  Volunteer support was received from parents (chaperones), the Schooner Martha captain and family, the Northwest Maritime Center/Wooden Boat Foundation shop personnel, Carol Hasse and crew of Port Townsend Sails, the PT High School STEM/maritime students, and parents to help first graders drill boats for the mast and to tack sails to masts.

What were some of the challenges?

As we can see, they’ve been busy this year.  But like all new project ideas, they are not without challenges.  The biggest challenge was the collaborative work that required teachers to be out of their classrooms.  One participant asked that her grade level team be able to collaborate around classroom observations, and that was accomplished.  It’s also been more difficult than anticipated to get teachers to keep up with data collection.  But they are already coming up with ideas on how to improve next year.  Things like: 1) Supporting a full day of professional learning around math fluency/PBL for any teacher not involved in year one who volunteers (sub time/materials stipend);  2) Supporting grade level teams to collaborate around math fluency through collegial visits/observations (sub time); 3) And finally, approaching Port Townsend Rigging Company as an additional maritime partner to help expand and grow the program for years to come.

All in all, it’s an exciting project to see come together.  We’re all waiting with bated breath for this ship to come back to harbor with tales of their next success.

Project Photo, Math and Maritime Place-Based Learning
Project Photo, Math and Maritime Place-Based Learning

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Full STEAM Ahead with Project Based Learning

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All aboard and Full STEAM Ahead!

Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead
Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead

The educators over at Bates Middle School in Sumter, South Carolina have been working hard laying tracks for the past year in order to bring their exciting project to fruition. By combining Project Based Learning (PBL) and a curriculum focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) and working with local businesses they are hoping to create a new generation of students who are prepared to be in an agile and competitive work force. One of the brilliant concepts behind this project is that nothing exists in a vacuum. You can’t well understand engineering if you don’t have a good handle on physics. You can’t code a videogame without understanding the underlying code. And you certainly can’t have music without math.

The Full STEAM Ahead project aims to remove the traditional isolation of subjects through the use of the “Critical C’s” of Collaboration, Cooperation and Communication which are emphasized with project based learning through interdisciplinary activities.

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Now that they are a year in, let’s see what has transpired. 

Bates teachers, led by the Transforming Learning Together (TLT)

Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead
Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead

mentor teachers, in the first stage of this initiative begun by identifying large-scale student learning goals for the year. They then researched new teaching approaches in order to integrate STEAM and Project Based Learning to help them achieve their goals, along with developing “action plans” for each year’s practice. The belief was that art can spark creativity in young scientists and engineers, develop observational abilities, and strengthen collaborative skills. One of the guiding questions for this project is ” How can we improve instruction, pedagogy, and student learning across the curriculum through the use of STEAM and PBL?”

Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead
Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead

So how do they propose to do this?

They began by having their trainers and the TLT team attend a PBL and STEAM workshop that spaned six sessions. This team returned to Bates to lead the entire staff through a STEAM Project Based Learning activity in order to familiarize everyone with the methods. Teachers investigated and utilized critical inquiry to work through this challenge. The thinking was that teachers will experience everything that the students do, giving them the tools to help elevate the projects as well as answer previously unanticipated questions. Teachers then guided students through one PBL unit in the first year of implementation.

 

A year in… where are they now?

They started off by providing professional development to their teachers during the first semester of the school year. STEAM lessons were developed to be a part of the regular curricula as well as embedded in Project Based Learning. The second semester brought about school-wide PBL units. Then on March 24th, there was a school-wide PBL Kickoff to begin the grade level units.  This is where things really began to take off. For this initial thrust into the unknown they gave each year a different subject field to dig into. Sixth graders explored the guiding question: “Are animals placed in captivity at an advantage or disadvantage than those in their natural habit? Why/ Why not?”

Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead
Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead

The kick-off was a field trip to the Riverbanks Zoo. The 6th graders researched the question and created suitable habitats for animals of their choice. The 7th graders explored the guiding question: “How can we be prepared for the unexpected?” Dealing with the preparedness for natural or man-made disasters was the focal point. The Red Cross, Fire Department, EMS, Disaster Management, Police Department, Shaw AFB and Salvation Army each set up a station to explain their role in disasters and how the community can prepare for disasters in the future. Students researched a disaster and prepared community service presentations on disaster preparedness. Eighth graders explored the, very relevant, guiding question: “Can separate be equal?” This question dealt with the Civil Rights movements of 1960 -1990. Guest speakers, Nathaniel Briggs (Briggs vs. Elliot) and Artrell Benbow (civil rights activist in Summerton and Sumter) spoke to the students of their personal experiences. This culminated with the 8th grade Drama class presenting a skit about the infamous Orangeburg Massacre. Students then rotated rooms to watch films about civil rights, explored civil rights virtual museums, and participated in gallery walks. Students researched the civil rights eras of 1960’s through the 1990’s and created projects to address the guiding question. The PBL classes occurred every Tuesday and Thursday beginning March 28th and ended in a PBL Excellence Fair held on May 4th at 6:00 pm at BMS to showcase student work and presentations.

 

What are some challenges facing STEAM/PBL learning?

Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead
Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead

For as exciting as this method of PBL learning is, and it’s clear that it’s starting to work; students and teachers on the whole are more engaged in their study areas… it’s not without it’s challenges.  One of the biggest cited in the report is that not all of the teachers have bought into the STEAM /PBL concept. This makes communicating those ideas to students that much harder.  Further professional development is needed in order to ensure more participation by teachers. They have also had some difficulty setting up model classrooms so we are hoping teachers observing other teachers will assist in this. But as more teachers undergo professional development and find the merit in this method of teaching the easier it will get.  And year two has some exciting things in store for the students.  One word: Robots. We look forward to hearing about their experiences with Robots.

How might Robots, cross-cultural references and civil rights intersect?

Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead
Project Photo, Full Steam Ahead

Let’s mix up that engineering and art a bit, shall we? The term “robot” came from a Czech play called Rossums Universal Robots and is derived from the word “robotnik” which means slave. It’s about a robot who is forced to work for a shady company that then rebels and leads to the extinction of the human race.  It’s bleak, but not without hope.  But it’s a good lesson and a challenge for students on how we should be thinking about a newly created servant class.  Just some food for thought.

 

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Cigar Box Odyssey: Enriching Creative Process Skills

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Fourth graders stimulate the thinking processes involved in creativity through an Academic Enrichment Grant

Students creating cigar box guitars. Project caption:
Students creating cigar box guitars. Project caption: “These cigar box guitars are made by students using hand tools. The teacher used a power drill to place holes where we marked the box and neck. They are all wired to plug in to an amplifier.”

As we face many challenges in educating our children, it is important to emphasize creative thinking and problem solving. Creative thinking and problem-solving are essential parts of the process to turn ideas into innovation and open up avenues to creativity.

What were the goals of the Cigar Box Odyssey project?

The overall goal of the Cigar Box Odyssey project was to teach creativity by integrating the Outcomes of their gifted program with the Objectives of their Fourth Grade Curriculum. Their goal was achieved by emphasizing the gifted process skills of performance, presentation, research, creativity, self-directed learning, group dynamics, and understanding and creating art. The students analyzed the creative process used by musicians to design the cigar box guitar using the SCAMPER (Substitute; Combine; Adapt; Modify; Put to another use; Eliminate; Reverse) technique.

Fourth graders explore creative process skills in Cigar Box Odyssey. (Project photo)
Fourth graders explore creative process skills in Cigar Box Odyssey. (Project photo)

What is the SCAMPER technique?

The SCAMPER technique (introduced Bob Eberle, as described in the design thinking blog, Designorate, by Rafiq Elmansy) is based on the idea that what is new is actually an adaptation of something that already existed. It is considered one of the easiest and most direct methods to creative thinking.  The SCAMPER keywords noted above represent the necessary questions students should address during the creative thinking process. For example, for Substitute one could ask, “What part of the process can be substituted without affecting the whole project?” or for Combine, one could ask, “Can we merge two steps of the process?”

Project caption
Project caption “We begin research and building guitars at the same time. We use sites like PBS Blues Road Trip and Carnegie Hall History of the Blues.”

What skills did students use to build their Cigar Box Guitars?

Students build cigar box guitars (Project photo).
Students build cigar box guitars (Project photo).

The students researched the origin of the Delta Blues and how the Blues form travelled and changed, influencing other American music forms. They used measuring skills, basic knowledge of sound, and creative principles to build their own cigar box guitars. Then the students wrote original songs and performed them in a Blues Café that was set up in their classroom.

The students attended the New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar Music Festival where they were well received and able to meet professional performers. And, to top it off they have been invited to perform at the Festival next year. To prepare for their performance, they plan to invite T. J. Wheeler, creator of the Blues in Schools program, to College Park and help the students prepare for this performance. He taught this year’s fourth graders a few things in just a short time at the festival.

“We went to the New Orleans Cigar Box Guitar music Festival!” Project caption.

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How has this program affected learning?

Because of this program the students have experienced the intersection of research and reality. They have had a taste of living what they researched and were exposed to adults who built the same instruments and performed the same kind of music. They were also able to extend the program to include some cutting-edge technology by 3D printing their own guitar picks.

“We wrote our own Blues songs and performed them in a Blues Cafe in our classroom” Project caption.

So, what’s next for the students?

With the purchase of a 3D printer students will learn how to program CAD and create (not just print) their own picks. So, both the technology and the performance components of the program will be lifted to a higher plane when they learn to program CAD and perform formally in front of a festival audience.

Students develop original music. ({Project photo).
Students develop original music. ({Project photo).

 

 

 

 

 

Further reading:

 

 

The Village Science Project: Reducing Barriers to Science Education in South Sudan

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VSP Engineering Club, Project Photo
VSP Engineering Club at Loreto Primary School in Rumbek, South Sudan. Project Photo.

While there are always needs in the schools in our own country, it is important to remember that other countries have students that have the same potential but lack even the basic resources available to many U.S. students.

This is what Candacia Greenman is aiming to address by working with the Loreto Primary School in Rumbek, South Sudan. The Village Science Project (VSP) aims to use an inquiry-driven, hands-on and play-oriented approach to improve access to high quality science education for over 200 disadvantaged students over a 3-year period in this MDEF funded academic enrichment project.

How can educators address barriers to high quality science education?

VSP intends to target the four main hindrances to science learning in their community in order to better serve the students:

  1. Limited resources for practical, inquiry-driven science exploration
  2. Poor English language acquisition
  3. Little community engagement
  4. Psychological barriers to learning

VPS’s proposed addressing these in the following ways:

  • Providing students with the resources needed for science exploration through the use of science experiments and engineering and robotics projects.
  • Implementing techniques to improve English language skills in science learning by promoting reading through tablets, facilitating peer learning experiences and encouraging student presentations through science fairs
  • Stimulating community engagement through science fairs combined with field trips and career talks from local community members.
  • Creating low-stress environments for our students, especially our girls to become interested in learning science (students are also given opportunities for “tinkering” or “free play” with science kits through the formation of an after school “tinker club”)
VSP participants show a simple circuit. Project photo.
VSP participant shows a simple circuit. Project photo.

How can teaching methods improve students’ love for science?

Loreto Primary School serves over 600 students, with an emphasis on girls’ education and VSP will benefit about 200 different upper primary students over 3 years. The students live in a community with limited access to electricity and potable water and currently, classes are conducted outdoors under trees.

Most of these students never get a real chance to find a love of science because it’s taught almost exclusively in a theoretical, teacher-centered manner. As such, VSP is ground-breaking because of its use of a more hands-on and child-centered methodology to elevate student learning. They’ll do this by keeping a strong focus on inquiry-driven science exploration, which will help these students to develop their critical thinking skills. VSP will also deepen students understanding of, and interaction with the local physical environment as well as addressing social issues that adversely affect science education such as gender inequity, trauma-induced stress and poor community engagement.

At the end of year one the educators working on the VSP conducted initial baseline assessments of science performance and interest of Primary 5 and Primary 6 students after the following programs were implemented:

  • Teacher demonstrations
  • Laboratory exercises/activities
  • Robotics and engineering projects
  • Tablet usage
  • Mathematics manipulatives usage
  • Science fair
  • Career talks
  • Field trips
  • Tinker Club

Revealing effective science and math teaching

The VSP team members have conducted baseline assessments in both science and mathematics enabling the teachers to tailor the rest of their programs according to how best to serve the students needs.  In light of a mathematics assessment revealing gaps they’ve launched a mathematics intervention program targeting student understanding of number operations for Primary 3 through Primary 6 students. All teachers have adapted their teaching programs to allow for more time for Mathematics instruction and they have expanded their focus on number operations.

In addition, all of the primary school teachers attended a month-long training workshop to learn how to integrate demonstrations into their lesson plans for effective science teaching. In order to maximize the use of the science teaching aids, they expanded their focus to include demonstrations in Electricity, Magnetism and Weather modules.

Students work with tablets to improve math and science fluency
Students work with tablets to improve math and science fluency

Best of all, afterschool programs to supplement students’ science education have also been implemented. In these programs, the students use science kits to expand their learning of material covered in their Electricity, Magnetism and Weather modules. Those aren’t the only exciting things going on after school for Loreto Primary School students.

VSP has also introduced programs to introduce students to engineering principles and robotics. In these programs, students have been using Engino engineering blocks to build simple machines and learn how to code using the Lightbot app as a first step towards understanding robotics. The engineering afterschool program encompasses the proposed ‘Tinker Club’ in which ‘free play’ is encouraged and students build simple machines of their choice.  Students are also being provided with tablets to use in the afterschool programs to aid them in their mathematics and science courses.  

One of the most exciting additions have been the science fairs which give the students a place to shine in front of Teachers, parents and other community leaders also attending the event. The science fair focused on energy and engineering and students gave presentations on the design of solar toys, the basics of electricity, and the design and utility of simple machines.

Loreto Primary School students present at the VSP science fair. Project photo.
Loreto Primary School students present at the VSP science fair. Project photo.

One of the greatest feathers in the cap of the VSP project is that all of their after school programs and the science fair were conducted in English and has resulted in a vast improvement in English comprehension. In addition, students have learned how to use technology and the basics of coding through the use of tablets. Their teachers have reported that tablet usage has also helped the students with Mathematics anxiety.

Lessons learned in academic enrichment

The accomplishments of this project have not come without challenges. The VSP team have reflected on ways they can improve their program in later years.  Their biggest challenge was the field trips due to security concerns. As a result of this challenge, they have shifted their focus and are currently designing a “Mathematics and Science for Life” program in which students will attend weekend sessions to learn how mathematics and science are useful in everyday life.  Being able to adapt and shift strategies in response to challenges is a necessity for success for a program like this.

The VSP team also learned the difficulties of relying on applications that are not as readily available on the international networks. Google Play is not enabled in South Sudan. As such, all apps must be pre-loaded before transportation to Rumbek. Unfortunately, this means that updates cannot be installed as needed. Furthermore, a lack of consistent and fast internet access has limited the utility of many apps that would be very useful for the students. And in addition to these challenges, having electricity in the classroom has been an issue.  As such, they recently invested in solar energy to provide electricity to their school campus and  are have installed solar electricity panels for our primary school which will improve their internet access.

All in all, it sounds like some really exciting things are going on with the VSP in Rumbek.  They’re swinging with the punches and adapting when necessary.  The McCarthy Dressman Education Foundation is excited to see where they go in the years ahead.  If they succeed, other schools in the region will benefit enormously from the pedagogical strategies that these educators are pioneering.

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Art History Enrichment Club: Painting to Understand Human Culture

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Two things that are rarely taught in tandem, outside of college elective courses, are Art and History, yet these two disciplines are inextricably linked. Art gives us a window to the minds of humans living in another time.  Every detail can tell a story, from the subject and the setting to the style of a time period.  Each of these things gives us hints as to what life, attitudes, and technology were like when those pieces were created.  Art as old as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs as well as that created in modern day can shed light on how humanity has evolved and provide a glimpse to human potential. Some might argue, if you don’t know the history – how can you create the future?

This important connection between human expression and history has inpired the educators at NYOS Charter School in Pflugerville, Texas, in the Art History Enrichment Club.  According to the project team, the goal is for students to better understand how history and art are interwoven throughout the ages. This understanding will allow students from all backgrounds to connect the art they studied to the community and world around them. By studying the craft of painting in a variety of techniques, they will not only grow as artists, but also make connections between advances in art, history and culture, from paintings in famous museums to those found in their local community.

Students explore important connections between art and history in "Art History Enrichment Club"
Students explore important connections between art and history in “Art History Enrichment Club” in a series of after school enrichment workshops and a field trip to the Blanton Art Museum in Austin, Texas.

How does art history after school enrichment support cognitive and social skills in intermediate grades?

The Art History Club was open to students in 4th and 5th grades. Students applied, with parent permission, and thirty of them decided to stay after school one day a week for an hour. This allowed the school to serve up to 20% of their student population. The classes were offered for 20 weeks and were capped off with a trip to the Blanton Art Museum in Austin, Texas.  Not only did the project allow students of all backgrounds to connect with history and their communities, it also gave them a new visual language to identify styles and techniques.  Research has shown that students who are enrolled in art programs increase cognitive and social skills that are then applied in daily classroom activities.

Students shared what they were learning on an Art Board in a common area of the school.
Students shared what they were learning on an Art Board in a common area of the school.

An important part of this enrichment program is that it wasn’t just passive observation.  These students received hands on experience, so to speak.  Not only did students see and study the art and varying techniques, they also put those lessons to the test.  A weekly display of the information about an artist and the students work was also shared in a common area for all students to view. Additionally, there was an art show displaying student’s artwork open to the NYOS community.  NYOS also has a collaborative relationship with local business. These business were able to display artwork allowing students to share their achievements with their local community.

What other benefits came from this project?

According to Melissa Hefner, project awardee, the project was designed to make broad connections between art, history, and real life: “The first goal of the project was to teach how history and art were interwoven. The second goal was to show the different styles of art that have been created throughout history, starting with Egyptian Art and ending with Modern Art.  The third goal was for students to identify famous pieces of artwork on clothing, TV shows, movies, posters, etc. making the connection that masterpieces are all around us.  The fourth goal was to have them identify art in their community and then add their own art to the community.”

Students were able to share their art with friends and family at a school fine arts night.
Students were able to share their art with friends and family at a school fine arts night.

The students have discussed art throughout many historical periods and created pieces of artwork in many different styles in the after school program, every Thursday for an hour.  In April, students showcased their work at Fine Arts Night, and even the parents managed to learn a little something they didn’t know previously.  In the beginning of May they took the field trip to a local art museum and graffiti wall.  A great contrast between fine and street art, and a great lesson about the importance and impact of both.  As a direct result, students have become aware of how much art exists around them in the books they read, historical events they study, current events they hear about, and even in their social media feeds.

This project is off to a strong start and continue to impress us at the McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation.  Here’s to a few more years of making art and creating history!

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Aquaponics: Growing Our Own Food Sustainably

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Learning how to grow food engages culinary students and harvests real-world science in this featured project.

In an age of environmental unpredictability and rising cost of living one thing not being discussed enough is self-sustainability.  Understanding how to grow and prepare one’s own food is an incredible life skill to develop, regardless of one’s chosen profession.  This is something that Michael Kosko and the educators at  Al Raby School for Community and Environment, Chicago, IL are taking on right now through their program “Aquaponics: Growing Our Own Food Sustainably.”  By teaching students how to grow their own herbs and vegetables, alongside certain types of fish they are hoping to create a program that produces students mindful about their environment and who can also cook up a decent, healthy filet of fish.  This program will also provide students with the opportunity to explore issues of food justice and food deserts which many students experience within their communities.

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Recipe for Success

This project is unique to the Chicago area. While there are many culinary and horticulture/agriculture programs in the city, Al Raby will be the first to combine these two types of programs into one. The Office of CTE (career and technical education) Programs provided equipment for the culinary lab.  In the grow lab, students will grow salad greens, kale, and various herbs while taking care of tilapia and koi. Eventually, this program is looking to partner with local businesses to sell the student harvest. In the classroom, students will study the life cycles of plants and fish and the optimal way to grow both. Since this class will be heavily rooted in the scientific method and student inquiry, students will also study how different variables affect plant growth including temperature, light intensity, nutrient/chemical levels, water quality, diseases, and aquatic pests. And since no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers are used, all produce grown in the lab is classified as organic according to the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) definition.

Building a Grow Lab and Disseminating Learning

Ultimately, the goal of the project was to build out a grow lab in the school to support their preexisting culinary/food science career and technical education (CTE) program when those classes began in September 2016.  Accomplishing that meant getting the grow lab up and running, which they did, leading to a bountiful harvest in May. Students who took the vegetables home came back with rave reviews from family and friends.  

Currently they are working with the Garfield Park Conservatory, to create a teen docent program made up exclusively of Al Raby culinary students. Fifteen of their freshmen students interviewed for ten spots on the inaugural docent team. During the summer, these students work to create educational experiences for area elementary students and during the school year they will be released from their culinary classes once a month to lead tours for second and third graders.

Along with those benefits, this past summer the selected students ran experiments in the grow lab with Akilah Henderson, the Student Engagement Coordinator at the Conservatory. Under Akilah’s guidance the students will tracked the growth of crops on the conservatory’s farm and in the lab, building on the Botany students’ work from the past semester.

Meeting Challenges and Planning for the Future

They were not without difficulties.  Unfortunately they discovered too late that the district requires schools to obtain special permission to raise fish.  Because of this, the first round in the lab had to do without the fish.  But David Blackmon, the program coordinator for all the culinary CTE programs throughout the district, toured the lab earlier in the month and is working with central office to obtain permission for Al Raby to start raising tilapia and koi next school year. Fortuitously, fish can easily be added to the current units in the lab with no modifications once permission is obtained.

Regardless of the fish-hiccups it sounds like the students and educators at Al Raby are off to a great start.  It sounds like before long they’ll be swimming in so much fish and so many vegetables they’ll have have trouble giving them away!

Plans for a dinner for district leaders and community stakeholders are in the works to share the success and help others savor the impact of the project.

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STARS: Real world inquiry excels to new heights at Research Ranch

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The mobile observatory from the STARS project. This picture was taken by drone of the director standing in the brand new facility.
The mobile observatory from the STARS project. This picture was taken by drone of the director standing in the brand new facility.

Science, inquiry, project-based learning, and relevance take center stage in STARS.

At a time of such ecological uncertainty, when some of our greatest minds have given us 1000 years as a species until extinction, one thing is abundantly clear: the study of celestial bodies, near and far, has never been more important.  And while 1000 years may be a bit far off to even comprehend, it behooves us to broaden our understanding of our neighboring planets in stars in hopes that when the time comes for us to leave our terrestrial trappings behind, we’re ready.

This is exactly what educators at George West High School have been working on for the past two years with their innovative STARS (South Texas Astronomical Research for Students) program.

“It has widely been assumed that scientific research and especially astronomical research was an endeavor to be pursued at the university level, and even then primarily by graduate students, certainly not at the high school level.  STARS challenges that notion.”

-Kenneth Zeigler

Research Ranch Cultivates Learning

STARS is not limited to astronomy. At Research Ranch, tiny ranch by Texas standards of only 34 acres, introduces students to real research in the following fields of study:

  •   Astronomy
  •   Solar energy to electricity conversion
  •   Ecology
  •   Materials engineering
  •   New techniques in ranching (the solar ranch)

According to the report, in the first two years of this project all the areas above demonstrated tremendous progress in regards to research. Current efforts continue to focus the project primarily on astronomy, materials engineering, and solar energy.

A Converted Marching Band Trailer becomes a Mobile Astronomical Observatory

One of the most exciting developments of the past year was the STARS observatory telescope coming fully online to fully begin the program.  It’s housed in the Mobile Astronomical Observatory, an 8 by 16 foot, 30-year-old converted marching band trailer.  

This year saw the final steps of the transformation into a scientific research facility.  Even receiving a brand new coat of paint and its official logo as the school year began.  

Students of the science club get busy painting the mobile observatory’s exterior in the new color scheme.
Students of the science club get busy painting the mobile observatory’s exterior.

The mobile observatory is divided into a control room and telescope room section. Most of the student researcher’s time is spent in the control room which is climate controlled.

The primary instrument used this year with the telescope was the thermoelectrically cooled CCD camera that could be used to take timed exposures of the heavens as well as make measurements of star brightness at a variety of wavelengths. This opens the possibility of making measurements of color and surface temperature of stars or the shapes and rotational periods of asteroids. The student operators, CCD camera and main telescope are shown in the slideshow below.

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Rocketry Club Qualifies for National Competition

The observatory isn’t the only thing to be excited about.  An unexpected offshoot of the astronomy program has been a new rocketry program.  Interest in the mobile observatory inevitably led to an interest in all things space, and it led students to pursue the Team America Rocketry Challenge.  Two teams from George West High School participated in this nationwide competition.  The challenge was to build a rocket that would carry two raw hen eggs to an altitude of exactly 850 feet and return them to the ground undamaged in a flight time between 44 and 46 seconds.  This is a most difficult task and one of the two teams (Cloud 9) qualified for the national competition.

The Cloud Nine rocketry team preparing their rockets for competition in Washington, DC.
The Cloud 9 rocketry team of the STARS research project preparing their rockets for competition in Washington, DC.

Solar Voltaic Arrays Support Real World Agricultural Inquiry

The solar ranch is another reason to celebrate this program.  Junior Ryan Repka has been working on two different designs for photovoltaic arrays.  The first one is the semi-active array.  The first panel will be finished before the end of the school year and will be installed during the summer of 2016 with the entire photovoltaic array to be completed during the fall 2016 semester.  At that point, Ryan  will begin a semester long study as to the best ways to maximize efficiency, from panel positioning to water cooling of the panels.

Through repositioning of photovoltaic arrays as part of the STARS research project, an additional 15-20% solar power efficiency can be realized.While this project exceeds expectations for high school students, it continues to expand student learning opportunities.  

In terms of agricultural and ecological research, the project is just beginning to make progress. In fact, an intriguing future project is taking shape.  Not far from the observatory site and solar ranch, the first trees of a citrus orchard have been planted.  The observatory site is a bit north of the main citrus growing region of Texas. Being on a hill out of areas of cold sinking air help, but this area is subject to serious killing frosts about one year in four.  To combat this problem, the students and educators plan to develop what they are calling a microwave defroster.  This system could be used to prevent frost damage on citrus but would be even more useful on more sensitive winter vegetables such as lettuce. They plan to initiate a pilot project for this device no later than the winter of 2018.

It truly is an exciting time to be a student or a teacher participating in the STARS program at George West High School.  There’s something very powerful about teaching and learning while simultaneously working for a better future for all humans.

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