High school science teachers translate the latest research into classroom activities, lessons

October 22, 2002

Blacksburg, Va. -- Do high school science teachers and university researchers view science differently? Not really, says Susan Eriksson, professor of geological sciences at Virginia Tech.

During the summer of 2002, five teachers of high school biology, chemistry, earth science, physics, and mathematics worked with Virginia Tech faculty members and graduate students in the university's labs on a project that is using new adaptations of the atomic force microscope (AFM) to increase knowledge of microbe/mineral interactions important to groundwater research.

As part of this project to bring the new field of nanoscience into the high school science curriculum, scientists and science teachers were interviewed to better understand their perspectives on the nature of science and science teaching. Eriksson will report early findings at the Geological Society of America's 114th annual meeting in Denver Oct. 27-30.

"At first, the scientists had a hard time seeing how their high-level, technical science could be useful in teaching secondary school science," says Eriksson. "But we found that the teachers can find many ways to incorporate the study of nanoscale processes in the environment into their lessons."

"One of my objectives is to get graduate students used to doing outreach. I want them to recognize the power of working with K-12 teachers and students," says Eriksson.

The research used for the project is the work of Ph.D. students and faculty members affiliated with the NanoGeoscience and Technology Laboratory at Virginia Tech, such as, nanoforce measurement of the forces between microbes and minerals using biological force microscopy (BMF), which was developed at Virginia Tech. Such forces can dictate whether minerals are taken out of or released into groundwater, for example. BMF has made it possible to model such interactions. Other researchers are evaluating controls of transport of such chemicals as hydrocarbons, arsenic, and various forms of iron. A new nanotechnique called optical tweezers allows direct observation of the trajectories of micron-sized particles in fluid and porous material. The use of enzyme-activated probes with AFM may enable scientists to observe how nanoscale chemical processes relate to the topography of the mineral-water interface as the processes occur.

As a result of the workshop, the teachers prepared lessons in physics and math based on the principles of AFM operation, and found numerous ways to use the microbes/minerals research and its findings in biology, physics, mathematics, chemistry, and earth sciences lessons. "So we have managed to translate something very specialized into five different areas of study," says Eriksson.

This summer's workshop was the beginning of a four-year project funded by the National Science Foundation to bring nanoscience out of the lab and into secondary school science classrooms. It enables the teachers to learn about the latest science by working with scientists in modeling, problem-solving, doing research, and analyzing results, and then incorporation of nanotechnology into lessons. Lesson plans and activities will be tested and revised for broad dissemination through CDs and a book. Participants will visit campus during the summer and the school year, and a web site will be developed to facilitate continued contact.

The paper, "Nanoscale processes in the environment: secondary teachers and nanobiogeochemistry of microbe/mineral interactions," will be presented at 9 a.m. Monday, Oct. 28 in C109 of the Colorado Convention Center. Co-authors are project coordinators Eriksson, who is associate dean for science and math education in the College of Arts and Sciences, and George Glasson, associate professor of science education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Virginia Tech.

There will also be a poster, "Nanobiogeochemistry of Microbe/Mineral Interactions," which describes how the five teachers from city, suburban, and rural schools in southwest Virginia learned about nanoscience in general and the environmental aspects of the particular model project, then worked with the scientists to distill important aspects of the project for different subject areas. Co-authors of the poster are Karen Cecil, earth science teacher in Radford City High School; Virginia Tech geological sciences Ph.D. student Treavor Kendall, and Tech geological sciences faculty member Madeline Schreiber. Cecil is also a Virginia Tech graduate.

The other high school science teachers who participated in the first workshop are André Green, chemistry teacher at Christiansburg High School and now a Ph.D. student; Drew Hurst, biology teacher at Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke; Mary Norris, physics teacher at Salem High School; and Angelie Nottingham, math teachers at Narrows High School.

The research was also presented at the Mid Atlantic section of the Association of Educators of Science Teachers in Natural Bridge.; Oct. 4 and will be presented at the Virginia Association of Science Teachers, Nov. 8-9 in Richmond.
Contact Dr. Eriksson at serikssn@vt.edu or 540-231-3703

Virginia Tech

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