Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Leaving Their Legacy: A Research Experience and Teaching Module to Maximize STEM Learning for Students

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Leaving Their Legacy: A Research Experience and Teaching Module to Maximize STEM Learning for Students

Article excerpt

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Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in the United States has reached a defining moment in history. On November 23, 2009, the White House launched the "Educate to Innovate" campaign with three goals in mind: increase students' conceptual understanding of STEM to develop critical thinkers, improve the quality of mathematics and science teaching by providing teachers with professional development opportunities that reshape and refine their teaching practices, and expand STEM career opportunities through high-technology innovations that solve global problems (Executive Office of the President 2009).

STEM is a way of thinking about the needs of society and how to cultivate a new generation of critical thinkers in a cutting-edge, technologically advanced world. Clean energy technologies, biomedical technologies, and robotics, for example, are all fields that benefit from students with strong STEM backgrounds. Thus, it is imperative that science teachers not only develop an understanding of these new technologies but also implement methodologies in the classroom that promote inquiry and problem-solving strategies.

Research Experiences for Teachers (RET), funded by the National Science Foundation, offer teachers an opportunity to participate in current, hands-on scientific research in laboratories across the United States. These experiences provide an avenue for teachers to understand the process of research and gain insight on emerging technologies with the goal of implementing this new knowledge in the classroom.

During the summer of 2008, I (Lisa Beard) participated in one such experience at the Thin Films Polymer Lab at Vanderbilt University (see "On the web"). My experience began with a three-day workshop on the Legacy Cycle of Learning (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000). After five weeks in this research lab, I wrote a teaching module based on my lab experience called Photosytem I: A Plausible Energy Alternative. This module was implemented in my 10-12th grade agricultural chemistry class during the spring of 2009.

In this article, I describe my research experience, the use of the Legacy Cycle (Figure 1, p. 54) in my classroom, and how this approach to teaching enhances STEM classrooms.

My research experience

During the summer of 2008, I worked under the direction of Kane Jennings in Vanderbilt University's Polymer Thin Films Lab (see "On the web") to create a photoelectric chemical cell (Faulkner et al. 2008). This cell is activated when a light source hits an electrode coated with a protein complex called Photosystem I (PSI) (Figures 2 and 3, pp. 54 and 55). PSI is located within the thylakoid membrane of plant chloroplasts. It plays a major role in the process of photosynthesis by producing nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADPH), which is necessary for glucose production.

When photons hit the PSI complex--also called p700 because of the wavelength at which light is absorbed by the molecule--an electron is lost, and thus the molecule becomes [p700.sup.+]. The electron travels down the electron transport chain, made up of various molecules within the complex, until it reaches an iron-sulfur receptor that reduces. This creates a flow of electrons that can be tapped into a circuit. The phenomenon is being explored as a possible alternative energy source because of the Sun's potential to provide vast amounts of energy at an economical price.

During my summer experience, I worked with Jennings's research team to hypothesize and test designs for a dry cell battery powered by PSI--using the same principles of photonic energy conversions that apply to a wet cell. A dry cell battery is made up of a cathode--usually graphite--that is surrounded by a paste. The two substances react through a series of oxidation--reduction reactions, resulting in the flow of electrons. A wet cell battery does not contain an electrolytic paste; instead, a solution of electrolytic chemicals serves as a medium for electron flow. …

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