2018 Viola Award Finalist for Excellence in Science Education
Susan Brown, a teacher at Northland Preparatory Academy (NPA), is in her seventh year teaching 7th grade science. Her curriculum focuses on earth and space sciences. Susan is dedicated to providing hands-on experiences for her students, and has collaborated with different organizations to create unique opportunities. Four of these experiences are summarized below.
I’m Lichen It
In collaboration with the Southwest Experimental Garden Array (SEGA), Susan organized an ongoing program called “I’m Lichen It” which studies climate change by looking at different effects on the health of lichens. Several SEGA sites are set up for studying the lichens and recording findings. Sites for the project have been established at Walnut Canyon, The Arboretum at Flagstaff and Bear Springs. There is also a practice garden set up for the project at NPA. Students involved in the project gain experience making observations, gathering data and addressing important issued through scientific research. Each grade level has a different area of focus, with younger students focusing on the practice of making precise measurements and observations, and older students looking at the bigger picture – seeing how organizations fit into a larger ecosystem, and using data to affect environmental education. Over its projected ten-year span, the project will include around 1500 students.
Teacher At Sea
In September 2017, Susan was selected through a highly competitive process to participate in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Teacher at Sea program. For two weeks Susan was aboard the Oregon II ship working as part of an international science team collecting data on shark and snapper populations in the Gulf of Mexico. Her students followed her journey by reading daily blogs from sea, and learned about apex predators in the ocean and resource management of both shark and snapper. Susan shared artifacts collected along the journey for the class, and shared with students what real-world scientific research looks like in the field. As an added bonus, Hurricanes Hugo, Irma and Katia affected the course of the Oregon II, giving Susan an opportunity to discuss the affects of weather on a research vessel as well discussing why bigger weather events such as large hurricanes are becoming more common.
Scientific Accuracy Campaign
In October 2015, students from Susan’s class took part in a letter writing campaign to get scientific information updated on cereal boxes. The campaign began when a student brought in a cereal box from a Safeway grocery store that illustrated the science behind changing seasons, as the class was studying this subject at the time. Susan noticed that the science behind the graphic was incorrect and made a class project out of the inaccuracy. She had students write letters to Safeway headquarters, explaining the inaccuracy and describing their own understanding of the changing seasons. Students even included an updated graphic with correct information. As a result, Safeway wrote back to the students, thanking them for the corrections – and the graphic on the cereal box was changed. The project taught students the importance of accurate, public information. It also provided a chance to practice writing about science in a real-world scenario. And on a personal level, it gave students the feeling of accomplishment that comes from creating change.
Students Spaceflight Experiment Program
In 2013, Susan had her students participate in a school-wide competition to propose experiments for the International Space Station. About 100 groups from NPA submitted experiments relating to conditions in space. An independent panel of scientists chose three finalists to send to the Students Spaceflight Experiments Program, who in turn would pick the final project to go up in space. Two of the three finalists sent to the Students Spaceflight Experiments Program were from Susan’s class, and one of those – impact of cell division in microgravity — was ultimately chosen. Not only is the prospect of having one’s own experiment implemented in space exciting for students, but Susan also felt that it was an important opportunity to practice coming up with, and submitting a formal proposal to an important scientific organization.
Susan’s style of teaching engages students in authentic research – and it keeps students interested and excited in STEM curriculum. There are just a few examples of the work in and out of the classroom. Susan strives to find projects that allow students to make an impact and see that their actions do indeed matter.