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An experiment in education

New course blends critical reading, science experiments – and catapults

STERLING – In this classroom, there are no desks, no chalkboards, no textbooks.

In this classroom – a long, narrow room with brick walls and high, cathedral-style ceilings – there are folding tables pushed into the corner, drawings taped to the wall and measuring tapes, wrenches and bolts strewn about the floor.

In this classroom, students are conducting scientific research and experiments and trying, often failing, and trying again.

The new scientific research and design class at Sterling High School is a hit.

Eleven students surrounded the components of a large catapult – the 6-foot tall, 8-foot wide A-shaped frame and the awkward, 12-foot long arm with tractor weights bolted to one end and a sling affixed to the other.

They each had a different role: One student drilled holes. Another measured pieces of lumber. Still another assessed the stability of the frame.

They worked together on a recent Friday afternoon to create a supply list (Wheels!) and determine their next steps (Attach the wheels!) to move forward with the experiment.

The class blends critical reading and research writing with in-depth, hands-on scientific experimentation. Science teacher Christine Browne and English teacher Emily Johnson aim to prepare the students – mostly seniors and a few juniors – for college and encourage their interests as they learn how to find credible sources, summarize and challenge published literature and create experiments to test their theories and support their findings with data and research.

“I’ve always wanted to do a little research in my classes. Students don’t know how to do scientific research, don’t know how to write scientific papers,” Browne said. “I thought if we had a class like this, where they could choose the topics, that perhaps they would be interested in research.”

But the class goes beyond science, math and English; it demands a lot of soft skills, such as teamwork, problem solving and flexibility.

“They’ve learned so much about working together and encountering setbacks and making adjustments,” Johnson said. “I always tell them that any time they make a mistake or mess up a calculation, it’s better, because they have to learn to fix it.”

At the start of the semester, the students focused on critical reading and writing. They learned where to look for sources, including academic journals and science databases, how to evaluate them and how to write about them, both to summarize the main points of an article and to take issue with the conclusions of an article.

Over the last few months, the class also has discussed other issues, such as bias and ethics.

Right now, the students are building a medieval-style trebuchet, a type of catapult that uses a raised counterweight to supply the energy to throw a projectile, as part of a unit on data analysis. They are not only collecting and eventually analyzing their own data, but also designing and carrying out their own experiment.

Next semester, they will work on their final projects: They’ll choose something to investigate, then design an experiment, conduct the experiment and collect data. They’ll assess their hypothesis, back it up with the results of their experiment as well as research, and produce a formal research paper. They’ll also present their findings to the class.

Kate Whitehouse, a senior, says the class offers preparation for college.

“I’m not really good at writing papers, and I thought this would really help me write good papers and research well,” Whitehouse said.

Michelle Nickrent, a senior with big dreams of going to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and studying agribusiness, says it teaches patience, among other life skills.

“I’ve learned a lot of teamwork,” Nickrent said. “I’m having a lot of fun, but I never knew how hard it would be.”

Kyle Sinn, a junior, says the class is unlike any other at the high school.

“There’s not an answer in the back of the book for this class,” Sinn said. “We’re not looking at what other people have done, we’re working on stuff we’ve tried and has worked or hasn’t worked. It’s not the science teacher giving you a bunch of instructions, it’s us doing the work. We keep lab books. We write down what we’ve done, what mistakes we’ve run into. There’s no set of directions. We’re actually learning something that will help us in real life. These are skills we’ll take with us for the rest of our lives.”

Browne and Johnson hope the class becomes popular enough among students to warrant offering a couple of levels – research and design 1 and 2, for example, where level 1 is an introductory class and level 2 is an advanced class in which the students work more independently.

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