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Lab-in-a-box fuels zeal for science

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By Cindy Simpson

I love science!

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That is the enthusiastic cry of one of the Rockwood Middle School sixth-grade students in Cassandra Dothard’s class.

They are learning life science, thanks to hands on materials from what has been termed “lab-in-a-box,” a project of Rural Communities STEM Initiative, an Oak Ridge business and education partnership to help the school districts improve science, technology, engineering and math skills in the area K-12 students.

The particular lab this group has features a number of different species in jars.

Dothard has adjusted the lab to meet her students’ particular level in science.

Instead of identifying subspecies, the sixth-graders are looking at the creatures to decide what biome they belong to.

“I’m not doing it exactly the way the box is intended but it fits in with my state standards,” Dothard said. “That is something they have to do for TCAP is pick the best, even if there is more than one biome it could exist in. It is fun to hear them say ‘eww.’”

“Ewww” is one of the many words that spring from the children studying the labs.

“Is this stuff still alive?” questioned Briana Sandifer.

Cohort Alyssa Gibbons was particular into their first selection of animals, a bunch of sea creatures such as a sea cucumber and starfish.

“It is so gross. I want to open it and touch it,” Gibbons said.

This is just one of a number of labs-in-a-box that were provided to nine area rural school districts through RCSI.

In partnership with Oak Ridge Associated Universities, Roane State Community College built seven lab-in-a-box activities, providing resources, lesson plans and training on using the box for middle school math and science classrooms.

The lab in a box activities developed thus far include:

• Sixth-grade math, How Biologists Divide, one box

• Sixth-grade biology, Species, Symmetry and Segments, one box

• Seventh-grade Geology, Mineral Properties and Identification, one box; Understanding the Rock Cycle, one box

• Seventh-grade math, Math in the Animal Kingdom, one box

• Eighth-grade chemistry, Do You See What I See, one box; Capture the Rainbow, one box.

Diane Ward, dean and associate professor for education, said one of the reasons Oak Ridge businesses looked at helping rural schools is because many employees in Oak Ridge are from surrounding communities.

The program began taking shape in fall 2010, when  officials started meeting. Initial boxes were made, and teachers gave feedback if it was something they needed.

In 2011, in partnership with ORAU, all the teachers who would be using the boxes were trained.

Officials decided to focus on state standards for middle schoolers.

“That is when kids lose interest. The other thing is most middle school science teachers typically don’t have a lab if in rural communities,” Ward said.

Ward said they wanted to keen student interest and bridge the gaps between what students know and need to know and used content specialists, the college faculty, to begin designing the boxes.

Ward said they are working on gathering classroom statistics to see if the labs have been a positive change.

She’s confident the hands-on activities are going a long way toward making math and science not only less threatening but also fun for students.

Some of the student surveys have positive feedback.

“I like lab activities. I understand it better than the book,” one feedback comment said.

And another: “It made me like science more since I felt like a scientist trying to figure out what the mineral is.”

The boxes contain things that teachers would otherwise have to take some time to gather.

“I couldn’t get ahold of all these organisms. I probably could, but it would have been expensive,” said Dothard.

Dothard said teachers get so much to spend annually on classroom supplies, but it would not cover the labs.

Roane County has a full set of the boxes. Ward said the whole set is about $7,500 and will last one academic year. About $600 of the materials is consumable and needs to be replenished.

Lab-in-a-Box has been submitted for copyright and is something Ward said she’d love to see spread to classrooms around the country.

School systems with sets include Roane, Morgan, Oneida City, Scott, Lenoir City, Clinton, Anderson and Campbell.

Ward said they’ve also received interest from Cumberland County and from as far away as Washington  County.

To sponsor, contact the Roane State Foundation at 882-4507.