August 28, 2023
Miracles in the Marshes: Students Find Their Place in Science
Graham Hegeman, Upper School Science Teacher
My overall goal as a teacher is to provide all my students with the opportunity to find a place for themselves in the world of science. Even if they don’t think of science as “their thing” or plan a career in science, I hope they can still savor the experience of thinking and feeling like scientists.
By introducing students to the scientific method of collecting and analyzing data and forming hypotheses, I seek to develop keen powers of observation, analysis, and thinking that will help them to understand and solve challenging problems in any field.
In many science classes, students perform laboratory experiments by trudging through a step-by-step process similar to following a recipe in cooking. Instead, I provide students with a vast amount of raw data and allow them to decide for themselves how to sort it and measure it, and then generate their own questions and experiments based on their observations.
In my ninth-grade environmental science course, for instance, I give each small group of students 20 to 30 preserved stickleback fish along with some information about the bodies of water where the fish lived.
The students decide as a class what characteristics they think might be relevant – from the weights of the fish to their lengths to the sizes of their tails, fins, and eyes – and then try to correlate their observations with the fishes’ habitats. They discover, for instance, that fish with big eyes feed on plankton, which is small and hard to see, while fish with smaller eyes feed on more easily spotted worms. Thus, eye size correlates with food availability in the water where they live.
Fields of Interest
Students also engage in data collection and analysis when they visit the wetlands along the Farmington River in nearby Bloomfield to perform soil analysis, species assays, and water testing and then discuss whether this environment should be protected from commercial development. This hands-on, in-person immersion in such an environment makes science more authentic and immediate for the students. And it’s also a lot of fun!
Similarly, at the outset of my marine biology class, I ask students what aspects of the underwater world most fascinate them and then structure the course around their interests. If they’re curious, for instance, about coral bleaching, sharks, trout native to Connecticut, or the nature of life under the Arctic ice sheets, those are the topics we pursue.
This kind of self-directed study allows students to become scientists instead of recipe followers.
Science Meets Real-World Issues
In my Advanced Placement Environmental Science class, students themselves identify and answer wider questions involving the intersection of science, economics, politics, and ethics. Their case studies have included the reasons for the Great Texas Blackout of 2021, the pollution caused by oil drilling in the Amazon rainforest, and the viability of carbon capture as a solution to climate change.
In one case study, they explored the increasing number of algae blooms and fish kills in the estuaries of eastern North Carolina. Biologists have attributed this phenomenon to Pfiesteria, a microorganism traced to excess nitrogen waste flowing into the rivers from the many hog farms in the region.
Students examined a vast array of opinions on the issue – from scientists, fishermen, farmers, environmentalists, politicians, and journalists. Then, in Harkness discussions, the students addressed the larger question of balancing the competing interests of all stakeholders and what societal values should shape public policy.
A Spirit of Inquiry
In each of my science classes, I want my students to feel that science is open to each of them and that it’s something they can see and do for themselves. In all their learning, I hope they become scientists – gathering data, assessing evidence, reaching conclusions – and, most of all, developing a life-long spirit of inquiry.
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