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Teaching Profession Opinion

STEM Blossoms in California Salad Bowl

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — March 27, 2017 7 min read
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Imperial Valley Unified School District Associate Superintendent Roger Ruvalcaba with Dennis and Daniel Gibbs in the Maker Space at Imperial High School.

Daniel and Dennis Gibbs are twins. They teach together, and sometimes they finish one another’s sentences. Their kinship created the Imperial Valley Discovery Zone, which excites second graders with the scientific method and opens doors in STEM colleges for high school students.

The concept is pretty straightforward: get high school students to present highly engaging, interactive standards-based science lessons to elementary school students beginning with 7 and 8 year olds. To see the end result, step over to the stream table.

Fake Stream; Real STEM

Ten second graders are gathered around what looks like a sand box, but which is actually an analogue model of a stream bed. “Erosion” is an important word. The 2nd graders just learned it in their preparation for watching what is called the “How Can We Save Our House From the Flood” experiment.

In their classrooms, the students got some conceptual grounding. They looked at maps, located themselves, and found a couple of places where examples were located. They saw a short video of stream flooding in Wisconsin carrying away a house, and they looked at a photo of the Grand Canyon and asked themselves, “did water do all that?”

Outside, they gather around the stream tables, ingenious devices that other teachers helped the Gibbs brothers build rather than order the more expensive versions from a science equipment supply company. The table is filled with sand. A water tap at one end initiates the cascade. A pump recirculates the water.

A specially trained high school student—the High School Explainer—tells the students that they are going to see a model of a stream and observe how the force of the water can move the soil. Student recorders write down predictions about what will happen when the water is turned on slowly, and initial measurements are taken in (new word here) centimeters. “The more we can get them to measure, the better,” says Dan Gibbs.

Scientific Method Taught Here

Five minutes later, the second graders voice their observations about the effects of normal stream erosion. Some students notice the water has formed a delta at the mouth of the stream, depositing sand where the water is flowing slowly. Some students notice that the bits of sand in the delta seem different than those left upstream. Students at another table exclaim about how the water has created a side channel. The new, wider channel is measured.

Then, the students prepare for the flood that they know is coming. Model houses are placed along the banks, and students are given obstructions that might divert the flow of water from pushing against the house. Little trees are planted, and bits of wood make dams. The water is turned on full force, and—to the shreiks of second-grade delight—havoc follows. The stream quickly overflows its banks. Water keeps flowing until houses fall into the stream, and students explain their hypotheses about why the house fell or survived.

Imperial Valley Wealth and Poverty

Stream bed words like deposition, are important for Imperial County residents, for the land they live on resulted from Colorado River silt deposited when the river overflowed its banks and flooded the valley, much of which is below sea level. Silt became rich farmland. Half our nation’s winter vegetables are grown in this county’s soil.

It is a land of great contrasts: verdant agriculture in a desert that gets about 2.5 inches of rain a year (that’s 6.35 centimeters if you’re a second grader), great wealth production amid widespread poverty. Official unemployment in March was 19.6%. In the Imperial Unified School District, about 80% of its 3,900 students are Latino, and 43% of all students fall below the federal poverty standard, qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

The location makes the science all the more important. About four years ago, the brothers Gibbs set out to erase the elementary school science deficit. They saw that elementary school teachers didn’t have the money, time, or expertise to create compelling science experiments. Along with about 10 other science teachers , they decoded the national Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), creating a series of experiments. In the second grade, their lessons cover about 15 NGSS standards. The Gibbs and other teachers are developing lessons for the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades, too.

Borrowing nomenclature from the Exploratorium in San Francisco, they created a system using High School Explainers as lesson presenters. There are about 150 Explainers, nearly a third of the junior and senior classes at Imperial High. “Mostly, they volunteer just for the experience,” says Dan Gibbs. “We’re lucky that we have kids who are willing to put themselves out there.”

Maker Space Attracts High School Students

Then they created a maker space where Master Explainers could build the needed apparatus, tinker to their heart’s content, and get a little high school credit. Master Explainers build demonstration apparatus, and take experiments to schools and other venues, such as shopping malls, farmer’s markets and the Imperial County Fair.

The fair is a big event. Recently, about 6,000 people visited the Imperial Valley Discovery Zone booth, experiencing demonstrations such as the one created by Kyle Lindbergh, an Imperial High School graduate now studying mechanical engineering at U.C. Merced. Nearly all the Master Explainers study STEM at U.C. campuses.

The maker space, which would have delighted Edison, is a converted classroom at Imperial High School. It’s equipped with worktables, saws, drills, a 3D printer, laser cutter, and lots of stuff in various states of construction. Dennis Gibbs (left) is tweaking a pendulum wave demonstration in which balls released at the same time produce fascinating patterns as they oscillate. At one side of the room is a student-built geological history slice of the area showing buried trash and treasure and much more deeply buried fossils.

In classrooms dedicated to the Discovery Zone at Ben Hulse Elementary School, the High School Explainers demonstrate their developing teaching craft. Students—all the 2nd graders in the district rotate through science demonstrations three times a year—are experimenting with what plants need to survive. Explainers showed them sick plants and healthy ones, and students guessed (the word hypothesis will be introduced later) about what causes the difference and brainstormed about what plants need. The Explainers help them isolate water and light, and then they go through the steps to create a real experiment.

Because it takes time for plants to grow or wither, the experiment will have to be taken back to the student’s home classrooms, but before they do they learn how an experiment is constructed with only one variable holding other resources constant. Students put young bean plants in pots. Four of these will be a control group (another concept). Others will get no light, no water, or a reduced amount. They also learn how to measure water in milliliters. Results of the experiment will be communicated among classes using EdModo.

Teaching’s Not So Easy

The Explainers find that teaching’s hard. At the end of the day, they are seen flaked out on the school lawn, exhausted. “When the [Explainers] put on lab coats, it changes their demeanor; there are no goof-offs, and the younger kids pay attention,” said Dennis Gibbs.

The Gibbs are tired too; they’ve just finished a 10-day county fair run, and they are prepping for a field trip to the Salton Sea. They’ve already supervised a trip to Split Mountain, in Anza-Borrego State Park, where this winter’s rains have turned the desert into a wild flower extravaganza.

The elementary school students are doing more than looking at blooms as they visit six learning stations in a four-mile hike up the canyon. Among other experiments, they scratch rocks to determine their hardness. There are gypsum outcroppings that yield to a fingernail, others that can be marked with a penny: field geology in small hands.

Why do they do this? Obviously, teaching has become a vocation rather than a job for Dan and Dennis Gibbs, who started in the classroom under emergency credentials when the family business they inherited became more a liability than an asset. The most direct answer is that they are driven; the longer answer is that they are also entrepreneurial. They have constructed an expanding science-teaching world out of “perpetual soft money,” about $500,000 so far. And people like what they are dong. “I think that the public admires people who take chances,” Dan said.

They want to take the idea county-wide, and I suspect it won’t stop there.

Photos: CTK

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