Some 140 students from Gridley Middle School learned first-hand this semester what it's like to be a science researcher.
The students exhibited the results of their work, examining water usage at school, during a symposium on campus this week. The project was designed by Arizona Project WET (Water Education for Teachers) through the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center.
Lisa Kist, a science teacher at Gridley who directed the project, said the opportunity for the students arose while she was working on curriculum design for Arizona Project WET.
Kist, who also is enrolled in the MASTER-IP program in the UA College of Education, said having the kids conduct a water audit "was something that would really allow students to experience hands-on science."
As part of the MASTER-IP program, Kist worked at defense giant Raytheon for a summer. There she learned that "knowing your stuff" was one thing, but what Raytheon and other employers look for are people who can solve problems.
"It was a bonus, seeing what employers want from kids coming out of high school. Even though I teach sixth grade, I know that if you can teach someone to be a problem-solver, they're going to fit wherever they go. They can teach people to do things," she said.
Kist said the water audit gave the students a chance to grapple with real-world problems and learn how to work together to solve them. It also ran counter to their world of standardized testing where questions come with only one right answer.
"When we initially started this in February, students did not like the idea that there was no answer. They loved the idea that they would be collecting the data, but they couldn't come to me and ask ‘Ms. Kist, what's the right answer?' because everybody's answer was different and because no two sinks are alike."
Eventually, she said, they caught on. Problems like broken aerators on faucets got them to take the initiative on working as a collaborative group.
"They were able to use their math skills, problem-solving skills. Everybody had a job and they were able to understand that if somebody didn't pull their weight that it would impact everyone else. There were many, many great things to the project," Kist said.
The research was augmented by classroom work where students learned about water as a scarce resource. Kist said the Arizona Project WET curriculum tied easily into the classroom.
"We can talk about environmental contaminants, rusted pipes, how pollution travels, runoff, ground water, gray water and all of those things in the process of doing the research. It's one of those things that you make it happen, and it makes more sense to them."
Kist also credited community volunteers with helping as well, including Tucson Water, which donated faucet aerators to replace older fixtures at Gridley, at no cost to the school.