2019 Viola Award Finalist for Excellence in the Science Education
Susan Brown, a teacher at Northland Preparatory Academy (NPA), is in her ninth 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 collaborates with different organizations to create unique opportunities. She is adept at utilizing available resources – such as implementing the Student Action Climate Toolkit – to creating new opportunities, such as a letter writing campaign. Some of the most meaningful activities are summarized below.
Larrea Cottingham of STEM city created the Student Climate Action Toolkit to take students through a step-by-step process allowing them to complete projects to better understand the importance of climate action. Brown implemented this toolkit as an in-class activity to give her a students the hands-on experience of enacting change. Cottingham said, “I was pleased to have the opportunity to work with Mrs. Brown’s students in class as they created solutions to climate change using the Toolkit.” Brown was not only able to engage and educate her students through this resource, but additionally made the whole process fun for all students.
In collaboration with the Southwest Experimental Garden Array (SEGA), Brown 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. Brown’s action in this project led her to win a Vernier Software and Technology award in 2015. Selected by a panel of NSTA-appointed experts, she was one of seven teachers across the country to win this award.
In September 2017, Brown 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 Brown 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. Brown shared artifacts collected along the journey with 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 effects of weather on a research vessel as well discussing why bigger weather events such as large hurricanes are becoming more common.
In October 2015, students from Brown’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. Brown 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.
Carrie Jenkins of Sinagua and Susan Brown collaborated in the investigation of macroinvertebrates in Oak Creek and Rio De Flag. Both teachers prepared “leaf packs” which were dispersed throughout each environment and were later collected. They had their students examine and compare the macroinvertebrates found in each pack. They implemented online sources so students would then be able to identify each species by name. The importance of this lesson was to learn the way the different environments attracted each species differently and how both the macroinvertebrate and water quality affected each other. Both teachers had their students upload data to the Leaf Pack Network site. Through both of these teacher’s dedication to the hands on process, they were able to deliver a hands on experience for their students.
In 2013, Brown 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 Brown’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 Brown also felt that it was an important opportunity to practice coming up with, and submitting a formal proposal to an important scientific organization.
Brown’s style of teaching engages students in authentic research – and it keeps students interested and excited in STEM curriculum. Brown strives to find projects that allow students to make an impact and see that their actions do indeed matter.