The growing importance of science in daily life is reflected in an increasing emphasis on science and other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines in education, and that emphasis was very much in evidence last week at Bethel Elementary and Blowing Rock School.
Bethel hosted a Math and Science Night on Thursday that brought the stars indoors, courtesy of a portable planetarium that came to the school from the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill. At Blowing Rock School, students participating in the Science Fair on Friday shared the results of their research on a wide range of projects, including whether you can charge a cell phone using potatoes.
Both events showcased the inquisitive spirit and experiential learning so essential to science, and did so in ways that encouraged students to appreciate the role of science in daily life and as a possible career.
The portable planetarium looks like a large round blue tent from the outside, while inside a computer generated projection of the night sky covers the ceiling. Science educator Nick Eakes of the Planetarium staff used the equipment to give students and families a tour of the night sky and an introduction to the constellations visible in our hemisphere.
Bethel’s event also included rooms where students could create marshmallow architecture, use Oreos to portray the phases of the moon, play math games, ride a stationary bicycle to generate electricity, and experiment with mixing materials of varied colors and textures, among other activities. Math and Science Night was the brainchild of Bethel’s sixth grade teacher Kim Dunnagan, who was pleased and excited the school could give students and families this special exposure to science beyond the classroom.
“Having the portable planetarium here at a small school in Watauga County is an especially big deal,” she noted. “Many of our families probably don’t know about the Morehead Planetarium and this gave them a chance to learn about what it offers while stimulating additional interest in astronomy. More importantly, we want Math and Science Night to help students become more aware of all the different ways they can experience science and to realize that it can be an interesting and rewarding career path for them.”
At the Science Fair held Friday at Blowing Rock School, students presented their research to visitors and answered questions backed up by photos, charts, and narratives on their carefully crafted poster boards. The event was spearheaded by sixth grade English/language arts and science teacher Allyson McFalls.
The questions that students investigated in their projects were diverse in the extreme, including “Can you charge a cellphone with a potato? How salty does water need to be to make an egg float? What type of cleaner best removes gluten? What is the relationship between water temperature and the appetite of koi?” Blowing Rock students formulated and tested hypotheses on these and other topics in the weeks leading up to the Science Fair and they were poised and prepared as they presented their results. And what about charging cell phones with potatoes? Sixth grader Darmody Tausche concluded that yes, you can do that as long as you have three potatoes and don’t mind waiting eight and a half days to get a full charge.
Bethel and Blowing Rock are far from alone in emphasizing science education in the Watauga County Schools. At Hardin Park School, an entire day was devoted to science earlier this month, with visiting presenters and faculty helping students see and experience science through a wide variety of topics and methods. The Cove Creek School “Robo Raiders Robotics Club” demonstrated a robot that they had built and programmed themselves at the November Board of Education meeting. Valle Crucis teacher Katie Matthews is using her Burroughs Wellcome Career Award for Science and Mathematics Teachers, a highly competitive grant that supports innovative teaching in science and math, to implement Science PALS (Participating in Active Learning through Science) in the Watauga County Schools. There are also “Maker Spaces” in schools to support experiential learning in science as well as other areas of the curriculum, to promote integration of skills and knowledge across a range of subjects, and to encourage more self-directed learning by students.
While the specifics of these and other special science projects vary greatly, they share common themes and messages. “We want all of our students to know that science is fundamental to understanding the way the world works, that it’s not intimidating and not just a list of rules and facts,” said Superintendent Dr. Scott Elliott. “It is a source of endless wonder and exploration and it provides a huge range of opportunities for study and for careers. It can also encourage the kind of values needed in all types of careers and in every generation: the commitment to an open minded search for truth, the willingness to learn and to change in the face of new knowledge, and diligence, persistence, and patience in the pursuit of our goals. Not every student will want to pursue science as a career but everyone needs to understand its basic principles and be able to evaluate the role it should play in our lives.”
The Watauga County Schools system consists of eight K-8 schools and one comprehensive high school with a combined enrollment of approximately 4,400 students. The system consistently ranks as one of the very best in NC based on the results of state required tests and on measures of teacher quality.