Thursday, January 30, 2014

Utilizing Students as Resources in their Own Education

By Sean Scarpiello

While STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) continue to be pushed in schools, many districts face difficulty in providing the expensive lab technologies needed to support these types of classes. As a result, many teachers feel as if the lack of proper facilities means that a satisfactory understanding of STEM subjects is too difficult to teach. However, STEM classes do not need to be extremely costly. If teachers can find creative ways to teach the lab components of these classes, students can learn in a fun and interesting way at a low cost. In all of my lab experience as a student, some of the best lab experiments I took part in cost practically nothing.

Just this past week, I had a lab physiology where we looked at the effects of different carbohydrates on blood sugar levels. When my professor was designing lab, he very easily could have designed an experiment involving mice, a special carbohydrate-containing food for the mice, as well as equipment to humanely remove and test small drops of blood. However, this would require a lot of different permits and high expenses which he did not have available to him. Instead, he thought of a novel way of studying the same blood sugar levels at a much lower cost. To do this he utilized many of the resources that we already have available to us. More specifically, my class decided that we would be to subjects for our own experiment. We each ate a different food containing carbohydrates (potatoes, rice, or pasta) and measured our blood sugar over a two-hour period using the same low-cost equipment utilized by diabetics. As a result, our class received the same type of data we would expect to find in mice but at the low-cost of a few household staples and cheap blood sugar monitors.

While experiments like this can only be carried out on a college campus, the same idea can be applied to high school and even elementary level STEM classes. All the different fields of science are always around us, so it would make sense that science can be easily studied by the things around us. For example, a chemistry teacher could discuss density and the miscibility of liquids by showing the class what happens when cooking oil and water are mixed. A biology teacher can teach his or her entire class to extract DNA from a strawberry with some salt, rubbing alcohol, and dish soap. Here, students can become actively involved in a fun and interesting way at a low cost for school districts. In fact, lab experiments like these are practically free because everyone has some of these resources already around the house or classroom. In addition, teachers can use these experiments to help students visualize what exactly is going on scientifically.

Further, these types of experiments do not need to be limited to STEM classes. In fact, many of the social sciences can be taught using similar techniques. By giving students surveys on topics such as political views, social studies teachers can teach the different ideologies behind different political parties through the ideas their students already possess. Also, teachers can also give students simple sociological surveys to talk about topics such as race, gender, and culture in a sociology class. Using these types of surveys, students become deeply involved in the learning process and understand how different topics relate to themselves. Equally as important, teachers can give these surveys at practically no cost instead of buying more expensive textbooks or published papers which support the same ideas.

Students can be a great resource and tool in their own education. By becoming involved in their own low-cost, homemade science experiments, students can learn from the resources already around. In fact, students can even take their knowledge home and show their parents simple experiments such as extracting DNA from a strawberry in their own kitchen. Even the use of simple surveys can be used to teach students about themselves as well as the different social sciences which govern our day to day lives. In all, it is easy for teachers to find novel and low-cost ways to keep their students actively involved in class.

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