Educators brush up on research

Scott Sharp and Drew Ising are spending their summers inside a first-floor laboratory at Kansas University’s Learned Hall as they study ways to profitably turn algae into biofuels.

What makes the duo unique isn’t their research — that’s a question being explored around the world. It’s the fact that Sharp and Ising are high school science teachers — not Ph.D candidates or tenured professors — who are looking for ways to translate the research they are doing at KU into lesson plans for their classrooms.

“Schools of education tell you, you must do research with your students. But our preparatory schools for teaching have no research experience. So you are trying to teach something you have never done,” said Sharp, who teaches AP biology, Kansas natural history and biotech engineering at De Soto High School. “This is going to make it a lot easier. After 10 years of teaching, I think this is going to take my teaching to the next level.”

Research experience

Sharp and Ising, who teaches biology and environmental science at Junction City High School, are among seven high school science teachers and one community college professor who are spending six weeks at KU as part of the Research Experiences for Teachers program.

The program, which is funded for three years through a $500,000 National Science Foundation Grant, focuses specifically on biofuels and is centered on research being conducted with the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis and the Transportation Research Institute.

Partnering with a broad spectrum of KU scientists, the teachers are researching ways to maximize the growth of algae so it can be more affordable to convert to biofuels, how to extract oil from algae, how to turn oil into biofuels, what to do with the byproducts and how biofuels work in engines.

“We are getting to have an authentic research experience,” Sharp said.

New lessons

As other teachers are researching ways to create fuels and burn them, Lawrence High School physics teacher Alan Gleue is at the other end of the spectrum. He’s spent the summer studying ways to reduce energy consumption.

With a device that measures energy usage, Gleue created lesson plans that will have students look at the difference in cost, energy use and carbon emissions for running a traditional incandescent light bulb, compact fluorescent bulb and LED light.

“I think it could really hit home for them,” Gleue said of how he hopes his students will receive the lesson.

He’s also collected household appliances for students to measure their energy usage, has a mini solar panel that can charge a cellphone and a radio that runs off a hand crank generator.

“We have the opportunity to really think about and develop new lesson plans over the summer. And we have the time and we have the resources,” Gleue said.

Engaging students

Gleue not only anticipates taking those lesson plans into his classroom — the Web-based program is intended to be used by other teachers.

As part of the program, the group of teachers spent two days at the Southeast Kansas Education Service Center in Greenbush to pass on their lesson plans to other Kansas high school science teachers.

“Rather than a straight lab activity with a cookbook recipe, these guys are trying to create something that is engaging for students so they are doing more research in the high school setting,” said Claudia Bode, the education director for the Center for Environmentally Beneficial Catalysis.

For the seminar in Greenbush, each of the teachers who attended received took kits worth about $100 that would help them implement the experiments in the classroom.

In the case of Sharp and Ising, their kits included clear long plastic tubes that can be used to help determine how much algae is in water. They also are handing out small aquariums for growing algae. Ising plans to use the setup for students to study what happens to algae when fertilizer and other chemicals are added to water.

“They are going to be held more accountable to actually answer questions. A lot of times we as teachers are in such a hurry to get through an activity so we can go to the next one that we don’t let our students go further to elaborate on another question,” Ising said. “A good science experiment creates just as many questions as it answers.”

And soon, the teachers will get the chance to take those lessons for a dry run at KU’s engineering camp.

Along with the opportunity to do research, the program includes a $8,000 stipend for participating high school teachers and another $1,000 to spend on equipment for the classroom.

But the extra cash isn’t the only benefit to the program.

“I’m a scientist too now. … I’m not just a teacher,” Ising said. “I’m now much more confident and comfortable acting as this expert to my students. You don’t have to know everything, you just have to have the experience.”

By Christine Metz

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