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Their Own Little World

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Changes in the science curriculum are sparking a sense of adventure at one Iowa high school.

Under a grant from the National Science Foundation, the school is retooling its science curriculum. Inspired by the changes, students in two 9th-grade science classes at Mason City High School decided to bypass the usual model or poster for their required "interactions of systems'' project in favor of building a "biosphere''--a contained, self-sustaining environment.

Led by their teacher, Carol Lee, the students recently created two separate mock biospheres in two classrooms. The biospheres, which were completely enclosed except for existing air vents, were formed by three structural walls and a fourth wall made of plastic sheeting, allowing participants to be observed by other students.

Ms. Lee says she was amazed at the initiative her charges displayed. The students did all the planning, from engineering the construction, to presenting the project to the principal for approval, to deciding how much electricity and water the biosphere inhabitants could afford to use on a given day.

Five groups of three or four students each spent about 35 hours apiece in the biospheres. While in the environment, students conducted science experiments, played board games, and even found time for a little homework.

One group brought in a basketball and outlined a makeshift court to help pass the time. Although the students had televisions, a limit on the amount of electricity they could use limited their viewing time.

They also had to make do with a simple chemical toilet and few everyday amenities.

The hardest thing to give up?

"Calling their friends at night,'' says Ms. Lee, who explained that the students communicated with the outside world only through walkie-talkies. "They missed each other.''--S.S.

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