Students Experiment, Grow, Test, Design, Build and Imagine
Middle School classrooms in the Science Education & Research Facility are humming this spring as students in all three grades dive into projects that enrich understanding of the scientific method, build research skills and inspire curious, confident inquiry.
Sixth graders are working on their Sunflower Lab, an annual project with Middle School Science Teacher Ed Okun. After sprouting sunflower seeds in the classroom, students created a control group of seedlings to plant at school with a plan for how much water, sunlight and fertilizer they would receive as they grow. Each student also took a seedling home to plant, and chose one variable to alter from the control group—perhaps giving it a little more water, or a lot less sunlight. They created a research-based hypothesis about the effects of the change. Students will collect data about their sunflowers for a month, tracking progress to see how changing the variable affected their plant. “This project is, in part, about botany, but more importantly it gives students a hand in designing the experiment and discovering how changing one variable affects outcomes,” said Ed. While they continue to track their sunflowers at home, sixth graders will wrap up the year with a biology unit.
Seventh graders have just completed their iScience projects. Working in small groups, students chose their own research topics and designed and conducted related experiments. Middle School Science Coordinator and Teacher Leanne DeCraene explained, “The iScience unit echoes the classic science fair model in that projects are driven by student interest. It’s an opportunity for them to put the scientific method into action on their own as they do research, create a hypothesis and an experiment procedure, then run the experiment and collect data from which to draw conclusions.”
This year’s projects included creating LEGO wind turbines to explore how wind speed affects energy output, comparing the corrosive effects of different acids on metal and demonstrating how salinity affects buoyancy. One group built a solar oven and collected data on how the angle of the reflection panel impacts the speed at which a chocolate bar melts. “Building the oven was really fun,” the group reported, “but we did have some extraneous variables because of changes in the weather from day to day.” Seventh graders will move on to a unit on forensic science, which will include labs on fingerprinting, blood type analysis and how to approach and solve mysteries.
Eighth graders are currently studying astronomy and the origin of the universe. In Matt Martino’s class, students are working on an astrobiology project in which they design a planet with conditions conducive to life. Working in pairs, students were tasked with imagining a new planet, determining elements such as its atmosphere, physical features, gravity, energy sources and temperature. They then invent the organisms that would live on their planet and describe how the planetary environment supports the lifeforms.
In addition to writing about their ideas, each group creates a mini terrarium in a mason jar as a window into the planet they’ve designed. One planet’s adaptations centered on color, with all but one of the creatures on the planet adverse to the color pink. Another group imagined an atmosphere rich with chlorine gas, allowing perfectly adapted flying predators to trigger chemical explosions that rain down on prey. Student Jake Lerner also considered the power of atmosphere in his project. “I thought about what kind of adaptations would be likely in a very dense atmosphere and decided to include a gliding creature on my planet,” he explained. The terrariums are glimpses into imagined worlds as well as students’ understanding of the role environment conditions play in the probability and possibilities for life.