It’s been an exciting two weeks for Little Mill Middle School seventh-graders. With the help of a Georgia Tech graduate student, all 275 of them got to be researchers on a water experiment.
They developed theories, compiled data and tested water samples for pH, ammonia and nitrates as part of an overall study to come up with solutions for why Lake Clara Meer in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park has experienced a decline in fish populations.
“The kids think it’s amazing about Georgia Tech [being involved]. They’re so excited about that,” said Little Mill teacher Kristina Strickland, who helped facilitate the project. “Our goal as teachers is to basically have more students interested in pursuing science careers.”
As the students worked, Tech student David Joyner was conducting an experiment of his own. The nine-day project at Little Mill is the basis for Joyner’s dissertation as he works toward a Ph.D.
“I’ll be spending next year writing about this experiment,” he said.
Joyner designed the computer program the students used and set up 10 student groups, six of which used the program with a special “metacognitive” tutor that guided them along the way, offering input and corrections and the other four which had no assistance.
The monitoring portion, Joyner’s learning, is “far more important.”
“Not just because it’s necessary to give them useful feedback, but also because it will take the place of a lot of other testing that has to be done,” he said.
“It can be something that monitors them as they go about a process, instead of having to give a test at the end.”
The seventh-grade experiment began during the summer, when Strickland ran a science camp in conjunction with Georgia Tech’s GIFT, or Georgia Intern Fellowships for Teachers, program. The CSI Unsolved Mysteries of Lake Clara Meer camp was essentially the same water experiment, only on a smaller scale.
“We took that summer camp and we brought it to Little Mill,” she said.
During experiments earlier this week, students were engaged, carefully mixing test tubes of water samples and chemicals to wait for a reaction.
Excitement stirred when the first group saw their water sample turn purple. But it was more than just changing water.
Students had to use Joyner’s program to plot their results and determine whether their original conjecture was accurate, or if the results had disproved their theories.
“A lot of times you have a teacher that’s giving them a lot of information,” Strickland said. “But we’re more facilitators in this experiment. We’re basically letting them go with whatever they find. They’re basically on their own and developing from that.”
The program is similar to what actual researchers use, according to Joyner. It gives students the same hands-on training they’d have in a real research lab setting, allowing them to go through a more authentic process and engaging them even more.
“The overall goal was to try to get students to get more interested in and more qualified for careers in science-related fields,” he said. “We do that by trying to teach students how to do science the way it’s really done in the real world.”