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Santa Barbara Middle School Dissects Science Labs Into Relevant Work

Sixth- through ninth-grade students engage in critical thinking and hands-on projects with a focus on real-world applications

From September to June, sixth- through ninth-grade students construct catapults, perform technical mammal dissections, program robots and engage in other authentic learning projects, bringing science to life at Santa Barbara Middle School.

Critical thinking, project-based learning and hands-on labs are the everyday norm in SBMS science classrooms. Concepts such as false associations, confirmation bias and the placebo effect ring out daily in their class discussions and labs. This sounds more like a high school honors class or an engineering academy than your typical junior high school science classroom.

A Santa Barbara Middle School student measures liquids in preparation for a hands-on science experiment.
A Santa Barbara Middle School student measures liquids in preparation for a hands-on science experiment. (Santa Barbara Middle School photo)

Russ Lewin is Santa Barbara Middle School’s ninth-grade honors geometry and physics teacher. He believes the two concepts are integral to each other and conducts a six-week intensive class in the winter, teaching students how to build and program small robots.

“Robotics allow students to exercise their mathematical skills through programming, and their design skills through engineering,” Lewin said, adding with a big smile, “When everything comes together, it’s not uncommon for students to shriek, ‘It works!’”

Students program the robots’ multiple sensors and motors to perform different actions simultaneously.

“I think there is an increase in confidence,” Lewin said. “All of a sudden the kids say, ‘I can program a robot to solve a Rubik’s Cube, and I’ve never done that before!’”

After several weeks of training, each student team is given a challenge project that requires them to apply their newfound abilities to solve a problem with a working robot that they have designed and built. All of these intricately designed projects lead the entire class toward increased confidence, understanding and a fascination for the concept of physics.

Dove-tailing textbook learning into biological transplants is one of the ways eighth-grade science teacher Victor Dominocielo gets his students to become hands-on scientists in his human-biology class.

“Hands-on science is the glue that connects all of the concepts,” Dominocielo said.

First, his students use microscopes and an arthroscopic machine with an attached camera to examine the different types of human body cells.

“After we’ve studied the human body, we move on to more complex organ systems, and ultimately into more specialized dissections, Dominocielo said. “Students apply their newly acquired knowledge in our final lab, where they dissect two mammals, transplant their hearts and reattach the major vessels with sutures.”

He believes it’s a memorable lab where the students really step up in maturity, and in their scientific approach to authentic learning.

While project-based learning connects many students with science, others gravitate to traditional book learning. Dominocielo also teaches scientific literacy in everyday life by observing and then examining the critical thinking mistakes people are prone to make.

“Students become more scientifically adept in the way they examine a topic when they understand the post hoc fallacy or confirmation bias, two theories that support the idea that we are more likely to favor information that supports our own beliefs,” Dominocielo said.

Ninth-graders apply the last pieces to their complex Rubik's Cube-solving robot.
Ninth-graders apply the last pieces to their complex Rubik’s Cube-solving robot. (Santa Barbara Middle School photo)

He believes that both project-based and traditional textbook learning lead kids toward greater depth and understanding in the area of science.

Sixth- and seventh-grade science teacher Jesse Kasehagen said that many of his students come in with varying degrees of background knowledge in science. He said the nature of science, being methodical and precise, can create some reluctance and fear in the eyes and minds of new scientists. With this in mind, Kasehagen lets his students choose a topic within the sixth- and seventh-grade state curriculum that interests them. The open exploration and research help break down that perceived wall that science always has to be right.

“Science can be fun,” Kasehagen said. “It’s all about asking questions. When students begin to explore, they realize they can figure things out for themselves. They are capable, and they realize that science is just a process. The final answer isn’t always available.”

As part of Kasehagen’s physics curriculum, students learn to design and construct catapults. The catapults become a “real” tool for teaching how energy is transferred. Students work together to design and build the complex machine with recyclable materials and power tools. They then test their catapult by launching an object at a set target. They are also asked to write a description of how their catapult is designed to work in terms of simple machines and energy transfer.

But Kasehagen feels the big lesson in this month-long science construction is about teamwork, and using that to tackle real-life challenges and then come up with a solution.

“Most of the time I see the students get that big ‘ah-ha’ when they learn a new concept while going through the process of inquiry and problem solving.” Kasehagen said. “Students are witnessing a practical application to a problem and instantly become more interested in science.”

The final outcome of these catapult launches gives the students a feeling of success, especially when they witness the object go farther than they had expected.

Taking textbook concepts and translating them into real-life application is what Santa Barbara Middle School science teachers do best. They know that when their students are actively engaged in solving real-world problems through experimentation, trial and error, collaboration and being excited about the process, that their learning becomes real.

More than anything, students learn that even in the precise world of science, there is always more than one way to solve a problem.

— Larry Good is a Santa Barbara Middle School parent.

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