An Early Effort to Engage Rural North Dakotan Students in Science

By Meara Thombre

To many k-12 students, science can often be a notoriously hated subject. However, careers in science, or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (better known as STEM), fields can really be some of the most fun, fulfilling, and indispensable work. Drs. Cindy Juntunen and Ashley Hutchison, as well as graduate students like myself believe that children’s early experiences can shape their attitudes and beliefs toward these essential subjects.

We want to make sure that rural students also have the opportunity to see how fun and exciting a career in science can really be. We wanted to show students that what they were doing in the classroom related to real world problems that they could help solve by pursuing a career in science. In order to do that, we found age-appropriate experiments for 5th and 8th grade students that related to research that North Dakotan scientists are already working on.

One of our favorites is an experiment that uses hydrogels to help students learn about how tiny molecules can still make a big difference in the environment. Hydrogels are composed of long molecule chains that allow them to hold onto water molecules. This characteristic of hydrogels can be really fun to see… and feel! The students are able to take the hydrogels, which vary in appearance from clear, small round balls to fine powder, and see them transform in a matter of minutes! Hydrogels can accept 500 times their weight worth of water, so these once hard to see little balls start look like slimy, squishy marbles by the time they have absorbed all the water. Once the students have seen how the hydrogels work, the differently shaped hydrogels are added to soil and placed in cups with drainage holes. Students then make hypotheses about how the different soil mixtures are likely to drain and make observations as they add more water over time.

Hydrogels are an awesome tool for the classroom because they are nontoxic and fun for kids (and adults!) to play with. However, they also help students learn about water runoff and soil erosion, which is one way hydrogels are used in the real world. From this experiment, students can see how hydrogels work to help improve the quality of lakes, streams, and rivers. The students can also see how hydrogels can assist farmers in a drought by holding onto more water than just soil alone.

Once our curriculum had been designed around experiments, like the hydrogel experiment, we held training sessions across the state and invited teachers, particularly those from rural schools, from all over North Dakota to attend. During this event, teachers were able to see live demonstrations of our experiments and learn how to incorporate them into their own classrooms. They also had the opportunity to ask questions, discuss their experiences teaching science, and network. After completing the training, each teacher was given a kit with $750 dollars worth of science equipment. The kit not only included everything that they will need to use our designed experiments in their own schools, but it will also enable them to create fun experiments of their own in the future.

We hope our experiments and others will help get rural North Dakotan students excited about careers in science. We also hope that offering professional development opportunities to North Dakota teachers, especially in rural areas, will inspire them to get creative in their classrooms when teaching science. However, measuring whether this intervention was effective is a blog post for another day!

 Click here to learn more about teacher training offered by CRCS researchers.

March 22-24, 2017