SciTrek- Helping students learn “How Science Works”

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Mealworms are ~1 inch long larva with a slightly hardened exterior to help them burrow underneath rocks, logs, or in stored grains, but how do mealworms find food and a comfortable environment? To find the answer, 3rd graders at numerous elementary schools in the Santa Barbara, California area worked with staff and volunteers from the UCSB SciTrek program, a K-12 science outreach venture created by Dr. Norbert Reich to improve science education in 2nd-8th grade classrooms by bringing the resources, people, and modules in order to help teachers.

SciTrek_1 The members of SciTrek have created modules that combine a fun activity and test subject (in this case worms!) with learning how to be a scientist.  Each module balances the need for efficient classroom management and meeting specific Next Generation Science Standards with the freedom for students to reason and think critically about each aspect of doing science.

For the mealworm module, SciTrek members worked with a number of local area teachers to develop an interactive, 6 lesson module to test what factors affect the direction a mealworm travels, in order to explore the role of food, moisture, light, and surface texture on mealworm habitat and health.

After learning about and making observations on the mealworms, students were guided through developing testable hypotheses with controllable variables. Many hypothSciTrek_2eses were different from each other, with no “plug and chug” protocol stifling scientific inquiry. For example, “If there are more than 6 mealworms in one pill container slot at time point 0, then the mealworms will travel away from each other until there are 3 mealworms per container slot at time point 5 minutes.” Students formulated an experimental plan and ran the experiment, making sure they conducted each trial multiple times so that they could calculate elementary statistics and gauge confidence in their results. Finally, students analyzed their data and presented their findings at a classroom poster session. Students were encouraged to make statements on what makes a mealworm travel based upon their data, with the understanding that there wasn’t necessarily one correct answer.

This type of module is typical of the SciTrek approach. Besides providing equipment and materials, SciTrek’s roll during the actual module is to create an environment that encourages students to think like scientists, meaning students learn to make observations and then try to objectively figure out why those observations are true and what they mean. This process requires patience, and breaking bad habits that limit exploration by discouraging experiments that don’t always work or by following experimental plans instead of creating them.

SciTrek offers a comprehensive online resource containing numerous modules (including mealworms), along with teacher instructions and student lab notebooks for nonlocal educators teaching 2nd-8th graders. To learn more about SciTrek, read our interview with Dr. Reich to learn about aspects of SciTrek’s creation, maintenance, and future plans, or visit SciTrek’s website.

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