science education

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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Lesson Study: Improving Science at Willow Field Elementary School

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Students investigating how the liquids move and change in bottles as they roll down a clipboard ramp. A data collector and teacher Sue Osborne (blue shirt) watches the students' reactions.
Students investigating how the liquids move and change in bottles as they roll down a clipboard ramp. A data collector and teacher Sue Osborne (blue shirt) watches the students’ reactions. Microphones connected to iPods are used to record students’ discussions and utterances.

One of the biggest factors in positively impacting student learning is teacher’s self efficacy and skill in communicating quality instruction.  If you aren’t a natural communicator, this isn’t the easiest skill set to develop. With an increased emphasis placed on ELA (English Language Arts) and mathematics instruction at the elementary level, science instruction seems to have fallen through the cracks.  The teachers at Willow Field Elementary in Liverpool, NY have developed a proposal to address that very issue.  How do they plan on doing this?  Through “Lesson Study.”

What is lesson study?

It’s also known as kenkyu jugyo in Japan, where the technique was developed. It’s focus is on teacher collaboration to discuss learning goals and planning actual classroom lessons.  This is followed by observation and revision so that other teachers can benefit from it. According to their original proposal, a lesson study cycle begins with a team of educators who determine the content on which they want to focus for the purpose of preparing a research lesson. In this case, it is with a focus on science education, though the model can be adapted to fit any subject.

Graphic from National Teacher Enquiry Network's What is Lesson Study?
Graphic from National Teacher Enquiry Network’s What is Lesson Study?

How does the project work?

The project team meets regularly to study and discuss the national, state and local standards and reviews educational research regarding the content. In Willow Field Elementary’s case, they’ve been studying the new National Framework for Science Teaching, recent journal articles from the field of elementary science education and consulting with the Department of Science Teaching at Syracuse University to become more knowledgeable in elementary science content and teaching practices. Using what they’ve learned, they will collaboratively write a lesson plan, which will be taught to a group of students while at the same time having the lesson video taped for further discussion. All of this is done with the end goal of improving instruction.  How specifically? By starting to teach more science than in the past, teachers gain comfort and improve teaching effectiveness. When combined with studying the national framework, research literature, and the data they have collected about student’s learning process and outcomes, teachers can more easily pass on what they have learned to other professionals.

What did the teachers study?

Three questions, specifically, are guiding teacher learning in this project.

  1. How do we design science instruction that makes students’ thinking visible?
  2. How can we meet our students’ needs and simultaneously address the new science framework?
  3. How will evidence of students’ learning be used to help us revise our original lesson?

How did they find the time?

Because lesson study requires teachers have time to plan, observe and reflect with each other, scheduling is difficult. With the logistical challenges inherent in this model, they have certainly faced an uphill battle.  Gearing up in August was required; team members needed time to plan. The project went into full swing of September 2012 with nine elementary school teachers and a building principal meeting a Syracuse University doctoral student and science education professor to discuss the overview of the Lesson Study process to those new to the method.  Shortly after, they met to determine their over all research focus.

Their goals:

  1. Students will be problem-solvers.
  2. Students will be inventive, creative and curious.
  3. Students will be risk-takers.

To help focus their efforts, teachers broke into three smaller teams, each dedicated to a grade and content specific focus.

  • 2nd Grade Science- Understanding the Specifics Matter (two second grade teachers, doctoral student)
  • 4th/5th Grade Science- The Force of Magnetism (two 4th Grade and one 5th Grade teacher)
  • 6th Grade Art – Observational Drawing to Support Sketching in Science Notebooks (two Art teachers, one 6th Grade and one 3rd Grade teacher)

Once the teams were in motion, they could follow the traditional model for the next semester. So after a year and a half of the program, how is lesson study impacting the students and teachers of Willow Field Elementary?

Students observing the properites of a liquid in bottles before investigating them as a data collector looks on.
Students observing the properties of a liquid in bottles before investigating them as a data collector looks on.

Impacting teachers, students, and administrators

With time, support and resources for lesson study, what were the teachers of Willow Field Elementary able to achieve?

  • Teacher participants gained further pedagogical content knowledge with regard to science content knowledge, observational drawing and uses in science and, constructivist methods of teaching elementary science (versus direct instruction)
  • Teacher participants expressed increased self-efficacy and confidence
  • Students gained experience collecting data
  • Students benefited from the many revisions to the lesson during the lesson study cycle
  • Students engaged in authentic scientific experimentation
  • Students gained content knowledge
  • Students who volunteered on the Professional Development Day had the benefit of seeing their teachers as learners.  They also experienced pride in playing a role in their teachers’ professional development.

In their project update, members wrote “Our lesson study team garnered increased support from the district administrators.” Seeing the model in action “allowed them to recognize the benefits of lesson study as an authentic model of professional development.”

Teachers debrief after a second grade lesson study..
Teachers debrief after a second grade lesson study.

How could the project be improved?

With all of the positive outcomes, members reflected on ways to improve on their experience. They found it especially challenging to differentiate lesson study for the experienced and novice participants, though in future iterations this problem may simply solve itself through teacher collaboration.  Scheduling and logistics, as always, was a nightmare.  But the biggest problem they faced was that the current school structures do not support lesson study mechanisms. In order to widely adopt this model for nationwide consumption, a massive overhaul of our education system would be needed.  However, for the individual school this method can prove invaluable in improving teaching and communication skills thus facilitating improved learning.

Further Reading

Schools in the News using Lesson Study