Science Teachers spend 7 weeks in UW-MRSEC Lab to design activities for the classroom

Ben Taylor, Anne Lynn Gillian-Daniel from MRSEC’s RET and Field Day’s David Gagnon

At a local elementary school, a group of students noticed a problem with their playground. Every time it rained, their blacktop playground flooded. Tired of choosing between soggy sneakers or boring recess, these kids devised a way to drain the lake-like puddles. Over several recesses, they engineered trenches to carry the water away from their play space.

And they did this without any intervention or coaching from their teachers! Isn’t kids’ ingenuity exciting?

Anne Lynn from MRSEC thinks so. She’d like to see students everywhere experiencing this kind of authentic science education.

Gillian-Daniel, director of the Interdisciplinary Education Group (IEG) of the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC)

“When you’re invested in something, you learn more because it matters to you,” she said.

You’ve got to wonder, how many civic engineers are now being forged from that flooded playground?

“Scientists want to make the world a better place,” Anne Lynn said.

For those kids, a better world simply meant a dry playground. They learned first-hand what it meant be a scientist by exploring, testing theories, and learning that it’s ok to try something — even ideas that didn’t work.

“Not everyone has to love science, but everyone should have a transformative experience with science,” Anne Lynn said.

Anne Lynn and the MRSEC Interdisciplinary Education Group are on a mission to provide more opportunities for transformative experiences with science.

“Everything should be engaging, and then it needs to be understandable. Our philosophy is to ‘invite, engage, and then explain.’ Just because you’re having fun doesn’t mean you’re not learning,” she said. “Field Day believes in playful learning, which fits what we’re doing at MRSEC.”

Screen shots of the Atom Touch Simulation

Field Day believes people learn best by making and doing real things, so we’re especially excited about our expanded commitment with the MRSEC Research Experience for Teachers (RET) at the UW-Madison. (Field Day has some history with MRSEC, having produced a simulation called “Atom Touch.Atom Touch is a simulation app for middle schoolers that explores principles of thermodynamics and molecular dynamics.)

The RET brings area science teachers into labs at the UW and gives them an authentic research experience. The teachers do research in the lab and then collaborate with their research mentors to develop classroom activities based upon that research. The grade-specific activities are freely available for others to use. In this way, MRSEC connects cutting edge research with teachers and kids in schools. RET is a strong example of “broader impact,” which is a required component for grants from the National Science Foundation.

A recent RET participant, Kelly Jeffery, is a high school science teacher in McFarland, WI. During her 2015 experience, she developed a lab for high school students to study how liquid crystals could be used as sensors. One of the students’ favorite lab stations about liquid crystals helped them discover how crystals in their cell phones work. She said her students “thought it was cool she got to be a ‘real scientist’ and not ‘just a teacher’.”

Being part of RET “was motivating and reinvigorating to work with other teachers and learn from others who are equally invested,” she said.

As MRSEC has worked with teachers around the state, they’ve discovered that while not every class has access to wet labs, many have access to a tablet or Chrome Book.

“Devices aren’t messy. They’re more free form. Plus, kids love technology,” Anne Lynn shared. The MRSEC team got to wondering — what if RET teachers developed simulations or games for their curriculum? And what if those game were digital?

“At first, we had this idea that apps are easy to make,” Anne Lynn said. “But we don’t have any developers; everyone is a researcher.”

That’s why MRSEC, RET, and Field Day made such a great collaboration.

David Gagnon, Field Day lab Director

The Field Day team are education and design experts. We work with subject specialists across the UW campus to create interactive media, like games, simulations and apps. We help groups like MRSEC walk through the planning and iterations of an app, and are there to give instruction and expertise along the way. Our goal is to be there for more groups on campus to make broader impacts by easily producing apps and games.

We’re excited to continue collaborating with MRSEC next year to create new, free science games that will be open to the public and used in schools statewide. Anyone, anywhere will be able to use them. Even kids on a playground who are looking for ways to drain that rainwater away so they can play.

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