A generation ago, before the Internet (when floppy disks really were floppy), science in middle and high school typically consisted of memorizing lots of rules, names and numbers. In many ways, it was a bit like history class: you learned all the facts, but didn’t question how those “facts” became “facts.” Sometimes experiments were demonstrated to show us these “facts”, but how often were we actually asked to design or analyze the experiments? Instead, these demonstrations were more akin to a magic show: meant to illicit awe, but not always able to produce understanding. This method wasn’t necessarily wrong, and in fact in the context of those times it was appropriate. The only place to find science facts was in a large, heavy book, which was not the most convenient object to fit in your back pocket.

But times have changed, and in today’s world of ever increasing smartphone use and the ability to Google any fact instantaneously, the need for rote memorization is decreasing, giving teachers the opportunity to focus more on the underlying methods of how science “facts and theory” become accepted knowledge.

The STEAM project featured Buck Scientists teaching local teachers about inquiry-based science teaching.

The STEAM project featured Buck Scientists teaching local teachers about inquiry-based science teaching.

Science teachers are at the forefront of this change in scientific teaching methods. Recently, The Buck Institute partnered with Marin and Sonoma County middle school teachers in a program called STEAM Engine to help enhance this new method of teaching call “inquiry based” science.

In simple terms, “inquiry based” science teaching is a method that encourages children to analyze and fully understand the experimental method and apply this knowledge to designing their own experiments. This understanding is the main foundation on which all scientific knowledge is based. Normally this type of teaching strategy isn’t regularly employed until college or perhaps even graduate school, after years of tedious memorization of species names and balancing chemical equations. Some memorization is still useful (knowing that NaCl is table salt), but with this need drastically reduced, teachers have been asking younger students to explore the “why” and the “how” behind scientific concepts and experiments.

“Why” and “how” are the two questions that most professional scientists spend their lives asking and answering. It’s also important to ask these same questions of younger children to enhance their critical thinking skills. These exercises will benefit them and set them apart if they choose to pursue a scientific career as they enter college and graduate school. Additionally, “why and how” are often the questions that create that first “spark” of knowledge. This method will help engage not just children who have an ability to memorize facts, but also those who can think abstractly and critically, skills which are quite valuable when planning future experiments.

Postdoc Jihyun Kim explains cellular differentiation with legos.

Postdoc Jihyun Kim explains cellular differentiation with legos.

In an effort to help ignite and inspire our local middle school teachers the Buck Institute hosted a week of inquiry-based “scientists inspire the teachers” workshop called STEAM Engine, funded by a generous gift from Dayton and Sheri Coles. At this workshop, Buck Institute scientists shared their research expertise with several Marin and Sonoma County middle school teachers. The presentations focused on the brain and the nervous system.

In addition to these presentations, there were hands on activities designed to encourage inquiry-based science teaching. Some of these activities included a cell differentiation game, building a functioning neuron, and a chemical sensory experiment. The cell differentiation game was designed to help students understand the specific molecular signals and pathways that occur in cells that are maturing/differentiating into cell types of different tissues. The second experiment involved building neurons from common craft materials, which taught teachers about the form and function of an important cell type in the brain. Finally, the chemical sensory experiment was hypothesis driven, and asked if C. elegans (lab worms) would respond to certain chemical stimuli through movement. All of these activities had multiple “correct” results and encouraged creative and critical thinking.

The STEAM Engine event was organized by the Bucks own Clare Peters-Libeu, Beth Kradepohl (Marin County Office of Education), and hosted in the learning center by Julie Mangada. The response from the teachers was overwhelmingly positive with many stating that they now had a better understanding of the current research being done at the Buck and of how scientists worked on a daily basis. The teachers were very excited to take what they learned back to their classrooms and design lesson plans around this new information.

Marin and Sonoma County teachers learning how to assemble neurons.

Marin and Sonoma County teachers learning how to assemble neurons.

It will be enlightening to see how students respond to inquiry-based teaching during the school year. As science teaching continues to evolve, collaborations between teachers and scientists could greatly enhance the public education system and benefit all involved, especially students. Scientists will learn how to better communicate their research and inspire the next generation of scientists. With inquiry based science, the fear of failed experiments could be dramatically decreased leading to more students feeling excited and confident about science, and ultimately boosting the numbers of potential scientists.

In Marin and Sonoma County our future scientists will now receive critical science training as early as middle school. This change will be very exciting, and the results are sure to be positive and fascinating!