On a walkway outside the steel and glass dome of the University of Arizona's Biosphere 2, a group of people in matching red T-shirts huddle around a yellow Tonka truck perched on a makeshift ramp assembled from folding tables and plywood. A man standing off to the side checks the wind and shouts out a countdown: "3…2…1…go!" Tethered to bungee straps, the dump truck rolls down the ramp in reverse, hits a railing and launches into the air a plastic action figure, taped to a flying contraption made of paper, scotch tape and pieces cut from a plastic bag. The group cheers as their prototype spirals toward the ground.
Funded through a $250,000 grant from the Arizona Public Service Foundation
, or APS, 50 teachers from elementary and middle schools across Arizona are spending part of their summer as researchers at Biosphere 2. The 10-day immersion program is aimed at enhancing science, technology, engineering in math education – or STEM education – in classrooms across the state by giving teachers the opportunity to develop their own research projects and involving them in activities and technologies they can directly apply in their classrooms.
In today's activity, the teachers take on the roles of their students. The task: build a device capable of landing their plastic test pilot heroes as softly and safely as possible, using as little material as possible.
"If you look around, you'll see plastic bags, straws and rubber bands – everyday materials, not specialized equipment they'd have to order from a special supply store," says Greg Stafford, an energetic and enthusiastic physics teacher from Desert Ridge High School in the Gilbert School District, who leads the activity. "The assignment is to bring a designing and engineering process down to the level of fourth, fifth and sixth graders."
The Arizona Center for STEM Teachers
, or ACST, started five years ago with grant funding from
Science Foundation Arizona and the Philecology Foundation. This year, APS provided the funding for the ACST Summer Institute 2013 to help science teachers from across the state bring STEM education to their students. Since 2009, ACST has provided professional and curriculum development for more than 500 K-12 STEM teachers. The center's goal is to help teachers incorporate STEM into their curriculum and create excitement for the sciences in their students.
"With ACST, we wanted to create a different kind of program," said Briana Gryzynger, a teacher at Tucson's Gale Elementary School who is one of the ACST lead teachers. "Professional development for teachers traditionally is conducted in their districts or various other programs where it follows mostly a top-down model. We really wanted a center that provides professional development built and planned by classroom teachers. Because who knows better what teachers need than teachers?"
For the entire duration of the program, the teachers live on the Biosphere 2 campus and immerse themselves in research projects, presentations and classroom activities. In line with funder APS, this year's program is centered around energy, while still maintaining a broad angle on science that includes earth science, biology, chemistry and physics.
Julie Coleman, executive director of APS, said: "The APS Foundation has made this investment because it's a remarkable program that invests deeply in both the students throughout Arizona as well as the teachers. We want to keep really bright kids here, we don't want them to go away and not come back. So we want to keep the future leaders and that talent pipeline rich and strong, not just for potential APS employees; it doesn’t matter what they do, we just want to keep really bright minds here in Arizona to help us be competitive as a state."
"Our day is long," Gryzynger said. "We start at 7:15 in the morning, and we go till 9 o'clock at night. This is not your 8-to-3 type of workshop. It's not something where you are told to go and sit in a classroom and just listen to what someone has to tell you, whether it's relevant to you or not."
"We want them to think about what might be something they could study while they're here, and since we are at Biosphere 2, every single one of them has taken the opportunity to study something 'inside the glass,' as we say here," Gryzynger added. "All of the activities are replicable in their classroom without having the Biosphere, so if they chose to study plants, they have plants back at their school, if they chose to study soils, they would do the same thing at their school."
"Being together 24 hours a day is crucial to this experience, because it develops that team spirit that keeps them going for many years after they leave," said Pierre Meystre, director of the Biosphere 2 Institute. "It is very rewarding to see the excitement and enthusiasm of these teachers."
He added: "It is so important to keep our teachers motivated, to get them to do actual science, and enable them to take that back into their classroom and pass it on to their students. Biosphere 2 is a very unique place because they directly interact with working scientists and translate their experienc into grade-appropriate experiments and lesson plans that are relevant to the curriculum."
Mabel Rivera, a young teacher with Tucson's Immaculate Heart Academy, said participating in one of the Biosphere 2 scientists' research projects sparked her interest in how soil content affects the types of plants that grow in the different biomes or habitats of the enclosed structure.
"I shared that idea with my colleagues on our team, and we all became interested. We collected soil samples from each biome and the desert outside Biosphere 2. We ran a lot of tests and figured out that across the board, it was the nitrogen that had the greatest influence on growth," she said. "It was a really eye opening and an empowering experience. I have a much deeper understanding of my content area and can guide my students to even get beyond what I already understand, so that they don't feel constrained to this experiment, but can keep going and explore further."
Rivera and her group already are thinking of doing the same experiment with their respective students in different areas across the state, testing soils and sharing data with each other.
"I'm super excited about doing some of these projects," Rivera said, "and I think the connections I've made with other teachers have opened up a framework where we can then share lesson ideas or lesson plans in the future."