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Science, engineering doctoral students energize young scientists

Posted: April 15, 2011

Maclain Bonfield sees a science or engineering career in his future. So when he heard about a free after-school engineering class, he jumped at the chance to join.

Eighth-grade Kyrene students Maclain Bonfield (left) and Alison Romero (right) discuss their prosthetic design with project team member Linda Nguyen. Standing is ASU biomedical engineering doctoral student Christine Zwart.

Eighth-grade Kyrene students Maclain Bonfield (left) and Alison Romero (right) discuss their prosthetic design with project team member Linda Nguyen. Standing is ASU biomedical engineering doctoral student Christine Zwart.

With lab partners Alison Romero and Linda Nguyen, the three eighth-grade students developed a design for a prosthetic hand that can be used on touch screens and mobile devices.

“I like to design things, and my dad has a prosthetic that I’d like to learn more about,” Maclain explains.

He and his partners did the work as part of a K-12 education outreach program funded by Science Foundation of Arizona and administered by the Arizona State University’s Graduate College.

Now in its second year, the project brings Arizona State University doctoral students to Kyrene Centennial Middle School in Phoenix to lead sixth, seventh and eighth graders at in hands-on science and engineering projects designed to spark and nurture their curiosity.

Experiments have included such diverse pursuits as exploring how microbes affect Earths’ nutrient systems, how water, electricity and other energy sources can be harnessed to meet society’s needs, and ideas for new state-of-the-art prosthetics. Students have built water turbines, a hydrogen gas-powered fuel cell car and water-filtration devices, among other things.

The knowledge students gained in the 10-week spring semester program has impressed Centennial principal Ev Michell.

“It has really increased our students’ interest in science and math.” she says. “They are so excited about it, and I’m amazed at how many questions these 10-, 11- and 12 year-old students know the answers to now. They know more about their subjects than I do.”

Innovative education

The second year of the program ended with students presenting posters to provide information about their research projects to families and friends at an event featuring speakers Paul Johnson, dean of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and Len Fine, scientific program officer for Science Foundation Arizona.

“This is innovative education in which the best and brightest graduate students are engaged in Arizona classrooms to bring cutting edge science and technology, engineering and mathematics — the STEM subjects — to the attention of young people,” Fine says.

“Maybe one of these kids will adorn the cover of Time magazine some day, recognized for their inventions and discoveries,” he says. “We want to create new knowledge and an environment that favors a new age of discovery.”

Principal Michell notes that in the second year of the program participation nearly doubled – to 90 students from the previous year’s 50 students.

“Parents of students from other schools tell me they heard about this great program we have and they want to know if we will have it again next year,” she says.

Parent Robert Castillo says that as soon as his sixth-grade daughter Mikayla saw the flyer for the program, she couldn’t stop talking about it.

“This program has opened up doors and so many possibilities for her,” he says. “Whatever she wants to do, I’ll support it.”

Preparing future citizen-scientists

The program is funded for at least one more year through Science Foundation Arizona business partners such as JPMorgan Chase and others, according to Fine.

Kyrene Centennial Middle School will again join the 2011 fall semester program, as well as Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School in Phoenix and Kyrene Del Pueblo Middle School in Chandler.

ASU students who are Science Foundation Arizona Graduate Research Fellows prepare for teaching the classes by taking a graduate-level education course to learn to communicate science and engineering concepts to K-12 teachers and students. They then collaborate with K-12 teachers to design, develop and implement learning activities for young students.

Graduate student observers from ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College attend the middle school classes to evaluate the quality of the program and its outcomes.

The program is overseen by Andrew Webber, associate vice provost of the ASU Graduate College, and Tirupalavanam Ganesh, an assistant professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. It’s coordinated by Pamela Garrett, a program manager for the Graduate College.

“This program develops strong communication skills in graduate students as they explain their research to middle school students and parents,” Webber says. “It’s designed to nurture graduate students as citizen-scientists, capable of explaining complex scientific challenges to a general audience.”

“These K-12 programs can increase awareness, enjoyment and response to scientific subjects through middle school students, their families, and teachers,” Ganesh says.

Through the Graduate College, ASU offers an internship for all doctoral students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics to get involved in K-12 education programs.

The college offers a K-12 STEM Education (GRD 598) 3-credit course. Interested doctoral students can contact Andrew Webber at [email protected] or Tirupalavanam Ganesh at [email protected].

Centennial Middle School: leading-edge projects and designs

Sixth graders focused on the importance of microbes to diverse ecosystems and how humans negatively affect ecosystems by over-fertilization of farms. They grew soil microbes, studied marine bacteria with microscopes, and studied algae blooms and the creation of dead zones in our oceans.

ASU graduate students:
Teacher: Michele Knowlton Thorne (biology)
Observer: Lorelei Wood (curriculum & instruction)
Kyrene CMS teachers: Jeff Garrett and Denise Blasi

Seventh graders tackled projects in water treatment, electrical energy, and hydropower. They built circuits, constructed a water filtration system to remove contaminants, powered lights with batteries and solar cells and assembled a hydrogen gas-powered fuel cell car.

ASU graduate students:
Teachers: Chelsea McIntosh (biochemistry), Tyler Norton (chemical engineering) and Michelle Barry (civil, environmental and sustainable engineering)
Observer: Linda Krecker (curriculum & instruction )
Kyrene CMS teachers: Melissa Melville, Rebecca Nichols, John Hutman and Elizabeth Noriega

Eighth graders learned about existing technology for prosthetics and brainstormed prosthetic hand designs for their favorite activities. Their final designs (see photos) included: a biker buddy hand that can grip the bike handle and use hand brakes, sports hands for soccer, volleyball, gymnastics, wakeboarding, snow skiing, golf, and other sports, and a prosthetic with electromagnets for a wide range of grip patterns for working with fine instruments and artistic implements.

ASU graduate students:
Teachers: Christine Zwart (biomedical engineering) and Justin Ryan (biomedical engineering)
Assistant: Chelsea Gregg
Observer: Jennifer Houston (curriculum & instruction )
Kyrene CMS teachers: Mary Kay Brenn and Stacy Despain

Michele St George, [email protected]
Graduate College

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