Heartfelt discussions

It has been great just talking to the students.

It was not what I expected to hear from high school students…

The answers I got from the students were heartfelt. I really sensed that the students wanted to talk to me and were excited for the possibility of change. Most of the student talked me for 30+ min.

I asked them generally what they wanted to get out of HS, do they get that they need from HS for their life and what would they do differently to change the school.

Most of the students told me they wanted real life experiences. They wanted to learn how to write a check, how to write cursive (don’t they teach them this?), how to save money, etc…

A lot of students said they wanted a volunteering class, where they can help their community. They wanted more labs and hands on experiments in classes. They said that students teaching or giving lectures would be helpful. They also liked the idea of peer teaching. Several students said that they currently help some students in certain subjects and they help them in others.

Students also said the traditional learning was good for their freshmen and sophomore years but wanted more of non-traditional based learning to focus on their individual interests their junior and senior years.

The most interesting discussion was with two different students who wanted their teachers to listen to them and to help guide them. The students said that the teachers would get frustrated with them if they did not instantly understand. They said that the teachers would imply they were dumb and start speaking slower or louder. In addition to that, one of the students said he was accused of doing drugs which he said he has never done.

Overall, they just wanted to be heard. They wanted their opinion to matter. Most of all they were really interested in learning and wanted a better way to be taught. They said they would be willing to come in after hours to learn if the teachers would be willing to explain the topic to them. Who should take this initiative? Should the teachers be asking the students or should the students be coming forth asking for further help?

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the Problem problem

Well, I’ve spent more time at CAPS (Center for Advanced Professional Studies, Overland Park, KS) and have noticed a few things.  The biggest thing I’ve realized is that the business world has much more to offer in terms of project based learning than I had imagined.


The business strands at CAPS have been very successful implementing a project based model – CAPS reaches out to businesses; the businesses provide the students with real world problems and real world clients; the students design and implement solutions to those problems, then present them to their clients; and all of this generally happens on a school friendly timeline.  The success seems to come from personal investment by the students and business community, and by the prior scoping of the work for the students.  They can jump right in knowing that they are trying to solve a problem that has been posed already by a particular client.  I personally have had a difficult time translating these ideas to research science in the classroom.


The biggest hurdle for research seems to be defining the problem in the first place.  Industry is VERY good at this, and businesses often have a very clear idea of what they need (e.g., a new web presence or streamlining of supply chains to cut costs).  Similarly, there are often successful examples from other businesses that are readily available or at least well publicized.  Science, for some reason, seems to make this more difficult.  Researchers doing novel and even continuing research can struggle mightily with asking questions that are small enough to answer, but still big enough to be interesting.  And even if those questions do happen to be answerable with the technology and resources currently available, they often do not cooperate with school schedules.  As with everything in science, there are different ways of approaching this problem problem.


In my mind there are two kinds of research labs.  For lack of better terms I will call these “centralized” and “distributed” labs.  “Centralized” labs have a specialized, overarching direction or program, and they tend to be very good at offering structure to incoming students by plugging in to ongoing research projects.  Students typically pick from a subset of partially defined questions, which they make their own, and successive student projects tend to build toward a particular goal.  In contrast, “distributed” labs have general areas of expertise, and current research is focused on progressing knowledge of those areas without being tied to a particular direction.  Student projects tend to be related but not necessarily bound to each other.  Often specific problems are not pre-defined, and these labs tend to be very good at letting students find their own questions.


For a secondary education setting, is either “centralized” or “distributed” research more effective?  Both?  Neither?


Is there any reason to believe that structure or freedom would be more important for this level of education?  Should we be handing research questions out to students when they walk in the class?  Should we have them come up with research questions based on a general field of interest?  How do we best help them to jump in fast enough to get things done fast enough to fit limited timelines?


What has worked (and not worked) in your experience?


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My first experiences at Olathe North

It’s been a while – but I’m back in the game! I was a GK12er two years ago, working at Rosedale Middle School with Ralph, and am super ecstatic to be able to participate again this year with the geosciences program at Olathe North High School. I am working with Marsha Skoczek (aka Ms. Sko), who is super fantabulous and I can already tell I will be learning a lot from her!

My first day at Olathe North was very interesting – it is a HUGE change from my experience at Rosedale Middle School. The resources available at Olathe North are mindblowing – in the geosciences program they have half a dinosaur that they have been taking out of matrix up for display alone! Marsha teaches 3 sections of marine biology, a junior geosciences class, and a senior level geoscience research class. My main emphasis and goal this year will be helping the seniors with their research projects – it’s more of a one on one research methods class at the high school level class and I am excited for this opportunity to be a mentor to them – this will certainly help me if I become an advisor to students one day🙂 I am also really excited about working with the juniors, because I will be able to come in and help teach lessons about a variety of different geoscience topics. The marine biology  class is a whole new experience – I have never taken a marine bio class so its a whole new thing and I LOVE it. This is what we did last week –Image



Squid dissection! SO COOL.


More to come later🙂

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OMIIR at Olathe East

The Olathe Methanotroph Isolation and Identification Research (OMIIR) group looks to isolate and understand methanotrophic bacteria in their local aquatic system and environment. This group that is based out of Olathe East High School and directed by Mr. Ralph, has been pursuing the search for methanotrophs since 2011. The initiative has evolved over the past couple of years and now serves as a launching pad for a number of other student research projects. Running a research group can be somewhat complicated in a high school, this is especially true when all of the students are not scheduled to be in class together on a regular basis. This year the core group of 5 students (involved in the project during their coursework throughout the day), serves as the center of activity supported by a group of student volunteers. The group is generally engaged and excited and because of some continuity of students from previous years they are able to continue their journey. Since their formation, they have had the opportunity to add capability by building appropriate equipment, master required techniques and be able to embark on their scientific journey. In the process they have built certain partnerships and have been recognized for their efforts.

This year I hope to support the OMIIR group in the continued pursuit of their overall mission. In a previous post I mentioned the topical overlap of my research interests with those of the group. My other role is to help provide context about process of science and generally be a resource. After a couple of months of interaction we have made some progress towards a couple of items of importance and that are also interesting to the group. The first is participating in the conversation on what elements might enable the group to function more efficiently. Because of the distributed nature of the group and various demands on the time of the participating students, organization becomes an important consideration. To this end the group is now conducting some of it’s activities online with a Google community. This allows the students to post updates and discuss issues of importance to the lab. I am looking forward to supporting the work of an ambitious undertaking that has already made significant progress independently.

Throughout the course of my tenure at Olathe East I hope to be able to offer context and be a resource to members of the lab. Further, one of my main aims will be to have the students share their experience with their peers. By planning their activities and communicating those aims with lab colleagues the students have already started to clarify their own thinking. Engaging students in science is not a trivial activity and there are many potential complications. However,  it will be interesting to see if extending this activity to a broader audience will help this exceptional group engage other high school students that wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to science. Subsequent posts will address the outcomes and further dissect this proposition.

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Precision and Accuracy

One of the foundational tenets of science is the ability to level the power of empirical observations to expose the inter-workings of the universe. As a computer engineer, in my earlier academic career, measurement and the ability to understand the state of the world was nearly real time. Stated in another way, I was able to test and measure variables and signals that were important to my work right away.

When I started to work with biofuels (and transitioned over to Environmental Engineering), this was no longer the case. In fact many of the biological tests that were important to my work required multiple days to complete. The fact that quantification and measurement consumed so much time was one of the greatest frustrations with my new chosen field.

Currently, I am focused on the opportunities of applying emerging measurement techniques for environmentally significant gases (specifically methane) to clarifying key assumptions of global and regional climatic models. At a very high level, there are many components to interact that lead to weather and climate. Some of these critical components are well measured and well understood. Other times they are derived or available over a large area. I’m interested in using new tools and approaches to help add to measurements of actual dynamics (how much is being emitted and consumed) in important elements that are the major sources for the global production of methane.

These goals are well aligned with the goals of the research group that I am working with at Olathe East. They are working to isolate and understand methanotrophic (organisms that are able to metabolize methane) bacteria in their own environment. Eventually it is their hope to apply this understanding to engineered systems. These students are excited about being able to participate in the broader research conversation happening around menthanotrophs.


I will blog more about the group that I am working with as well as the role that I play in upcoming posts.

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Last week in my GK-12 classroom, the 8th graders were learning about minerals and their associated properties. As a (non-materials based) engineer, I probably hadn’t thought about Mohs scale or gypsum since I had learned about them when I was an 8th grader myself. And what I saw while working through the lab with the students as they were identifying different minerals, etc was exactly what I remembered my experience as a student to be… If there is no relevant context to relate to as new material is being taught, the information is easily forgotten. By the end of the class period, all of the students had a firm handle on sulfur and it’s properties — I’m guessing because we explained that it is used to make fireworks and matches… But as for the less common minerals, they were quickly forgotten or confused with one another. This year I look forward to the challenge of learning how to provide context (especially when I don’t have extensive knowledge on the subject) to facilitate better understanding of the material.

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“Why do I need to learn this anyway?”

As noted in my previous post, there is a diverse student body – ethnically, culturally, and academically.  Students in the advanced eighth grade Geometry class to which I am formally assigned are likely college bound and will need a rudimentary understanding of mathematics as part of their post-secondary education. Others in the basic eighth grade math class, quite frankly, probably will not require a liberal arts mathematics background in their daily lives past high school.

So the question often posed by these students is, ‘when will I use this in real life?’ or ‘why do I even need to learn this anyway?’  Apparently ‘because the state of Kansas says so’ or ‘maybe someday you might need to use it’ are not satisfactory answers.

As a future educator, this is something I struggle to answer myself – why are we teaching kids things they won’t likely need later on?  Would students not better benefit from receiving a more technical, hands on education from day one?

Maybe so, but there is an assumption underlying these questions that we should ONLY acquire concrete knowledge that has absolute utility.  However, is the education system’s sole purpose to fill up students brains with ‘the facts’ as though they were jarheads?

I don’t think so, personally.  The purpose of our education system ought to be to teach students the process of how to ask questions reason, and problem solve.  In essence, the purpose is to give students the tools to think.  While most people probably won’t have to calculate what the angles in a 100-gon polygon are on the job (my Geometry class learned how to do so today), seeing patterns in the natural world and making predictions on it is necessary for living, whether as a machinist or an astrophysicist.

However, investing students in this notion and motivating them to acquire knowledge is less than easy.  How does a teacher challenge assumptions that there is value in learning material that is not of immediate utility?

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