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Science Reporter's Notebook

Business and the Arts Contribute to Lessons for Science Educators

By Sean Cavanagh — November 16, 2004 4 min read

Bring together several hundred physics, chemistry, biology, and earth science teachers for a conference, and you’re likely to hear plenty of strategies for getting potentially incurious students hooked on those subjects. There’s science through technology, science through seismology, science through rocketry, science through everyday classroom tools, and on it goes.

While many instructors are well served through those tactics, Greg and Carolyn Ulmer of Fort Zumwalt South High School in St. Peters, Mo., have come up with their own distinctive approach: science through the realities of the business world.

In a session at the National Science Teachers Association’s Midwest-area conference, held here Nov. 4-6, the husband and wife described how they ask students in their applied-biology and -chemistry class to solve scientific problems as if they were serving clients who needed their expertise for specific tasks. The Ulmers separately teach the biology and chemistry course in the 18,000-student Fort Zumwalt district.

The three-day conference drew roughly 2,700 participants from schools across the Midwest.

In one activity designed by the Ulmers, students were hired by the M&N Candy Division, a make-believe California-based company conceived by their teachers, which asked the teenagers to test the consistency and color of coatings used to dye sweets. The students, all of whom are “employees” at a business called ABC Technologies Inc., were asked to perform tests on the candy, using chromatography tubes, ethyl alcohol, and other materials. They recorded their results and came up with conclusions.

A second assignment came from a company called Micro-Scientific of Atlanta, which asked student-run ABC Technologies to test water samples collected from a freshwater lake, the site of a popular beach. The company, which specializes in identifying micro-organisms in water samples, had fallen behind on its work and needed outside help.

The directors of ABC Technologies then sent a memo to their “research teams,” the students, describing the protocol they should follow—with the promise of an extra benefit for results.

“In addition to your normal salary, you will receive a payment whose amount will be determined by how pleased [the Atlanta company] is with your work,” the memo said.

If the students in the classes perform sloppy work, they hear about it—not just from the teachers, but also from their “clients,” who remind them in letters that scientific mistakes are costing them money. Those clients’ requests have also included asking the students to perform water sampling and identify flora and fauna in an ecosystem. At least 250 schools and districts around the country have purchased instructional materials written by the Ulmers that explain their teaching approach, Mr. Ulmer said.

“We never have students ask us, ‘Why are we learning this?’ ” he told teachers gathered at the session. “They know . . . they’re going to be asked to use [that information] somehow.”

“We bonded, but he had too much energy for me,” Ms. Oxygen, the talk-show guest, complained to her host. She yearned for just the right element in her love life, and finally, she found him: Mr. Iron.

“I was instantly attracted to him,” Ms. Oxygen explained. With that happy pairing complete, the show’s host offered viewers a send-off reminding them of both the scientific and romantic rules of attraction: “May all your bonds,” the host said, “be more than periodic.”

That “Love Connection”style message came not by way of network television, but via a video presentation at an NSTA session hosted by Zafra M. Lerman, the director of the Institute for Science Education and Science Communication at Columbia College Chicago. Ms. Lerman, a longtime education researcher, offered the video skit as an example of how drama, as well as art, music, and dance, can be used to spark an interest in science among students of all ages.

For more than two decades, Ms. Lerman has been devising a curriculum based on those links, which she has shared with schools, teachers, and students in Chicago’s 434,000-student school system and educators nationwide. The actors in the skit were K-12 teachers taking part in a workshop offered by Columbia College Chicago. The goal was for them to learn more about using drama in teaching and to take those ideas back to their schools.

Ms. Lerman offered several other examples of teacher and student activities, including one in which students, acting as electrons, neutrons, and protons, performed a dance routine, their gyrations guided by their scientific characteristics.

She said the key for teachers (not unlike the couples on the make-believe TV show) is pairing students with the appropriate artistic activity that kindles enthusiasm in the subject matter.

“The point is to take what students like, what they feel strongest in, and integrate it into their learning of science,” Ms. Lerman said in an interview. “Different forms of art work wonderfully as a vehicle to teach.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2004 edition of Education Week

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