Sometimes, being thrown into a new situation with few resources and little knowledge can be the best way to innovate. Educators, especially those who work in smaller rural districts, can sometimes be called on to teach classes without a lot of support or resources. While those moments can be terrifying, it’s also a good time to step back from the anxious swirl of curriculum and standards to think like a kid. What would they love? Zombies, superheroes, and fairies, of course!
“It was a great experience for me to realize I could do something that wasn’t in the textbook, something different,” said Cinnamon Holsclaw, a middle school science and English teacher at Red Hills Middle School in Richfield, Utah. Holsclaw was asked to teach 7th grade science on short notice with no curriculum, no money for materials and only a few old computers with a filtering system that let almost nothing through. But she wasn’t tied to any guidelines and had ample freedom to choose how she’d tackle the challenge. She decided to let her students choose.
“If students want to study something you know nothing about, go on the journey with them,” Holsclaw said. Her basic premise for the course was to let her students choose topics that interested them and set them to investigate. They worked in small groups of three or four and investigated one issue per quarter. “All it took on my part was a willingness to let go of 100 percent of the control and a willingness to try and find a science tie to the things kids were interested in,” Holsclaw said.
In the first year, students investigated issues that were both local to Utah and had fairly clear science ties. Her students studied sonic booms, using Skype and email to connect with NASA experts about what they are and how they work. One group of students studied the Pando Clone, an aspen grove that is one of the largest living organism on earth. Another group of students studied “downwinders,” people who live downwind of nuclear test sites, a big issue in Utah. The students interviewed downwinders, studied the history of U.S. nuclear testing and learned the atomic science behind the bombs and the health effects of the tests.
“My confidence began to grow that I could teach a serious science class while allowing students the freedom to choose,” Holsclaw said. She realized science is in everything and it wasn’t too hard to find a link from almost any topic to serious scientific inquiry. When she could, Holsclaw tried to steer students towards Utah’s science standards (the state has not adopted the Next Generation Science Standards yet).
Holsclaw was also up against the challenge of being in a remote location. She lives in a town of 1,500 people with no major universities or research facilities nearby. But she didn’t want her students to miss out on inspirational connections with real scientists. “Through technology we were able to talk to experts in almost any area we needed,” she said. She was amazed at the time and care experts brought to their interactions with students. “Especially when they heard the kids asking the questions and coming up with the questions they were very willing to share their knowledge.”
Holsclaw also teaches English so she decided to make her science course interdisciplinary. She had students write formal research papers as they were gathering information, making sure to help them define and avoid plagiarism. Then, students used the information from their papers to build apps about the projects. Finally, Holsclaw asked students to use outlining and prewriting techniques as the basis for making iMovies about their topics, which were then added into the apps they’d made. “I really liked that combination. It was a really nice melding of English and science,” Holsclaw said.
The first year of the class was very successful and Holsclaw soon began to think of it as her favorite class. She only had 18 students, which gave her lots of time to work individually with different groups, helping them shape their projects. In the second year, the class became an elective and swelled in size, with many more students who were less naturally motivated.
Her new students weren’t interested in traditional science topics, but they were obsessed by zombies. They wouldn’t believe Holsclaw when she told them zombies weren’t real. Rather than shutting them down, Holsclaw began casting about for ways to make zombies relevant to science. In the end, she asked them to investigate whether it’s physiologically possible for the body’s cells to transmit messages that would animate the body, after death.
As a bonus, the 7th grade science standards include cellular biology, so the student’s investigation tied in nicely. To help them understand, Holsclaw asked the Salt Lake City medical examiner to visit the school, explain her job and describe what really happens after death. “She takes them through the whole process for death and decay,” said Holsclaw, and finally the students believed that the zombie premise was impossible.
“I was not an expert in any of these topics when the students started,” Holsclaw said. But the projects were fun for her because she was learning alongside her students. And she said parents were behind the projects as well. “The kind of parents that let their parents watch Walking Dead don’t even bat an eye at the zombie project,” she said.
SUPERHEROES SAVE THE DAY
Another group wanted to do a project related to superheroes. “The students researched genetic mutations in superheroes like Peter Parker, the Incredible Hulk and X-men,” said Holsclaw. They used the background information provided in the comic books to piece together the stories of how each superhero got their powers. Then they researched real life examples of genetic mutations like goats being genetically mutated to make silk proteins, genetically modified foods and genetic defects and diseases.
“When you add the superhero element to it the kids get really excited about it and start making the connections you want them to make,” Holsclaw said. Students compared their research on real genetics to what was going on in the comic books.
One of the hardest to connect, but rewarding projects students wanted to do was one on fairies. “I had a group of kids begging to do fairies and I could not think of a science tie,” Holsclaw said. In the end, she said it was a great opportunity to talk about pseudo-science, how to find reliable sources and the best way to evaluate them. Additionally, the students researched plants that had purportedly magical connections like toadstools, thyme, rue and primrose.
“They put the mythical and the real botanical information together to show the history of the plant and what the plant really does,” Holsclaw said. What started out as a fantasy became a great lesson in botany.
Many of the projects Holsclaw’s students wanted to do seemed impossibly difficult to link back to science at first, but with a little creativity she was usually able to find one, often surprising herself at how scientifically relevant many of the topics were. And, since Holsclaw had made her class interdisciplinary, there were plenty of great ways for students to share their findings in interesting and creative ways.