Carol Patrick is always looking for ways to bring science to life for her 37 or so fifth-graders in Vancouver, Wash. So when a colleague told her about Real World Science, a weeklong summer seminar for math and science teachers that explores key STEM concepts using real world examples from WWII, she didn’t hesitate to apply.
Last week, Patrick and 26 other educators from 18 states converged on the University of New Orleans for year three of Real World Science, a professional development opportunity made possible by a partnership between the National WWII Museum and the UNO Department of Chemistry.
“I already know how I am going to use this,” Patrick said as she stood in the middle of a college classroom with the other fifth- through eighth-grade teachers, each stirring a styrofoam cup of smoking “ice cream” made with liquid nitrogen.
Rob Wallace, STEM education coordinator for the National WWII Museum, created the curriculum for the program with Matthew Tarr, longtime UNO chemistry faculty member and now the University’s vice president for research and economic development. Participants spend four days at the WWII Museum and two at UNO, exploring history-based lessons on everything from buoyancy (How do boats float?) to aeronautical science (How do planes fly?) to life-saving medical practices developed during battle. Supported by the Northrop Grumman Foundation, the July 23-28 program provided teachers with free room and board, a travel stipend and seminar materials.
At UNO, the seminar’s focus was on engaging teachers in different kinds of experiments—recipe-based labs that involve complex chemical interactions and inquiry-based labs that require easy-to-find materials such as peanut butter and coins, exercises that can be easily translated to a middle school classroom.
Before teachers dispersed to laboratories, donning safety goggles and gloves, UNO’s John Wiley on Wednesday, July 26, welcomed them by giving them an overview of career possibilities for students who pursue science in college and graduate school. Wiley is the President’s Research Professor of chemistry and director of the Advanced Materials Research Institute.
“One of the important things that we are always trying to do is engage STEM teachers,” Wiley said. “We try to give them more classroom tools by involving them in research and talking with them about developing experiments that they can take back.”
Adrienne Houck, a seventh-grade teacher in Shoreline, Wash., said the Real World Science lessons and discussions have been invaluable, particularly when delivered by educators who understand the challenges teachers face.
“This gives us the opportunity to not only bring something new to students but attach it to things they enjoy, which is real life,” Houck said.
This year for the first time, participants are required to pass on the curriculum and lessons they learned at Real World Science to their fellow classroom teachers. Wallace said the program equips participating teachers with the materials they need to help share what they learned when they get back to their home schools. In the past, such sharing was encouraged, but Wallace said making it a mandatory part of the program is just one of the ways WWII and UNO are seeking to refine and expand the seminar’s impact.
Wallace said he enjoys hearing how much teachers get out of the program. For him, the opportunity to build, share and refine meaningful curriculum for educators is more than a little motivating. “This is my favorite part,” he said. “It’s what I really like to do and what I do best.”