Lessons in learning

Educators, community leaders hear the science of middle schoolers

Blount County educators and community leaders had a lesson in science on Monday. They were taught what Carpenters Middle School students learn in the classroom.

Through hands-on education, they discovered that modern day birds are descendants from dinosaurs, tree rings can tell more than just tree ages, coral reefs are being destroyed at an increasing rate, ancient animals could be found in their backyard, and how to construct buildings that are earthquake proof.

For almost three years these lessons have been available through the University of Tennessee GK-12 Earth Project grant. UT Professor of Geography Sally Horn started the grant writing process and eventually teamed up with other UT professors, graduate students and educators to bring the program to Blount, Jefferson, Knox and Sevier County.

She thought it was important to show middle school students that science was cool and interesting. “There is an anti-intellectual and science bias in our country,” Horn said. She said that by 2010, 90 percent of students in Asian countries will be studying a form of science; while the American percent is much lower, barely breaking 8 percent in 2001.

The grant was offered through the National Science Foundation on a yearly basis and had to be reevaluated each year to show its success. For the past three years the program was renewed, but the grant was only offered for a maximum of three years.

Though the night was focused on education it was also an outreach from educators to the community asking for partnerships. Carpenters Middle School science teacher Victoria Headrick planned the event and said she hoped it would show the community leaders and educators what they do for their students.

Once the grant runs out she said she does not have a plan. “That’s why we are reaching out. We wanted to know what ideas (they) may have,” she said. “We want to see what we can do to plant the seeds for tomorrow. … We do not want to lose the momentum.”

She hopes partnerships will form and resources, such as equipment, volunteers and supplies, will become more available. “We wanted to show we are capable of this, that we are able to do it,” she said.

Dendrochronology, or the study of tree rings, was the first presentation. Growing up, most kids learn that each ring of a tree accounts for a year of growth, but Henri Grissino-Mayer, the premier scientist on dendrochronology and UT professor of Geography, said that there is much more to learn from the rings.

Through scars in the tree rings, or portions of the rings that are not uniform with the rest, he said you can imagine the environment the tree grew in. “Anything that impacts a tree leaves a scar in the rings. We try to interpret what they mean,” he said. His research is able to tell when there were wildfires, the type of insects that lived during the age of the tree, when there were floods and even the type of air pollution the tree grew in. With samples in hand, he shows the students what each scar means in a tree, he said he even influenced a student enough to do a similar project in a science fair. The student won. “The rings are unique as a fingerprint -- as unique as DNA,” he said. “It is a bit of forensics but much more science.”

Colin Sumrall, professor in Earth and Planetary Science at UT, gave the next presentation over the evolution of dinosaurs into modern day birds. He said most people’s idea of dinosaurs is what they learned in Jurassic Park, but in the recent years there has been new research in the bone structures of dinosaurs.

His presentation showed the progression of dinosaurs over the years with the shifting in body structures, fusing of bones and eventual growth of feathers. “In the modern day world, dinosaurs are still around. We have lots of them,” Sumrall said. “You cannot draw a line between bird and dinosaur without a bold-face assumption.”

UT graduate student Chris Underwood’s contribution to the program is through matrixes left over from a mastodon dig found in New York. Combining efforts with Cornell University he brought the remains of a dig that excavated a 10,000 to 15,000 year old beast.

With a vanload of buckets filled with dirt he truly gets hands on with his students as they sift through the matrixes to find plant and animal remains to help paint a picture of the era the mastodon lived. He said one way to get students excited is he tells them that there is still 5 percent of the mastodon not discovered yet and that they may be lucky enough to find the remains in their buckets.

Through teamwork, the students dig in and if anything is found it is sent back to Cornell, classified and archived with who found it. “It does more good in the hands of a middle school student, even if they break (the remains found),” Underwood said.

Rene Shroat-Lewis, Ph. D student, and Carpenters Betsy Tillet programs shows the effects of human interaction and natural interaction with the destruction of coral. What happens is the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere through natural and unnatural means, driving for example, causes acid rain which reaches the ocean and damages coral. By dropping samples of coral in acid and a demonstration on what carbon dioxide is, she showed the effects - coral disintegrates.

Sarah Cadieux, graduate student in Earth and Planetary Sciences at UT, gave a demonstration an earthquakes and how they destroy structures. She passed out edible and non-edible building materials, marshmallows, candies, clay, tooth and graham crackers, for the audience to build a structure in 10 minutes. Once completed they were put to the test of the “shake table.” The table mimicked an earthquake and the winning structure lasted 14 seconds.

Through these programs Headrick said it gets students interested in sciences and prepares them for college level courses. Another interests meeting with community leaders will be planned for the spring.

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