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NC Science and Engineering Fair workshop inspires STEM teachers

In a classroom in Triad Math and Science Academy in Greensboro, 13 teachers gathered Friday for a day of role reversal — sitting in desks and listening rather than teaching from the front of the room. The North Carolina Science and Engineering Fair, in an effort to get teachers and students excited about STEM projects and competitions, hosted professional development workshops for teachers in four stops around the state.

“See what I did while she was talking?” asked Manley Midgett, the fair’s outreach coordinator. Midgett had walked away from a teacher as she quietly shared a science experiment she had tried with her class. As Midgett moved towards the center of the classroom, the teacher turned and raised her voice so he could hear. 

“Students will turn toward you and talk louder,” Midgett said. He was there to create interest in science and engineering in the teachers, most of whom were science specialists in their schools, and help them find ways to pass that interest to their students. But throughout the day, Midgett sprinkled in bits of advice from his decades-long teaching career. He said he has seen the importance of truly engaging students and showing them how much fun is found in the world of science.

“Students who are very successful in their field of science or engineering, or STEM, they can all look back to somewhere they were mentored, or had an opportunity to do something beyond the classroom, and where they could explore an interest, solve problems,” Midgett said. “And somebody mentored them at that time, and that’s what really opened the world for them.”

He said he hopes to garner more interest to participate in science fairs, but, more generally, he wants to create opportunities for students to have experiences that spark their curiosity and, often, shape their futures. A lot of that is on teachers. 

“If we’re just showing up, standing up, teaching about stuff and going home, the students aren’t getting what they’re supposed to get,” he said.

Midgett led the teachers, divided into groups like students, through a science experiment to find which brand of paper towel absorbed the most water. The teachers were given materials but were not given specific directions on how to answer the question. 

Afterwards, Midgett had one person from each group describe how they got their results. There were differences in the groups’ methods — some folded their towel before pouring water onto it. Some waited for a specific amount of time before measuring how much the towel absorbed. Some cut the towel. 

“We’re trying to get them to do some activities where the students get to design and decide how to solve a problem, how to approach it,” Midgett said. 

In the discussion after the experiment, Midgett said he lets students make mistakes. He lets them squeeze the paper towel without measuring how much water they started with. Then he asks students,”How would you know how much is still in the towel?” From this applied process, after years of knowing how to subtract two numbers on a page, he said he’s had students light up and ask, “That’s subtraction, isn’t it?”

Teachers came up with ideas for experiments that students could design as they went. Teachers threw out ideas involving pennies and water drops, resistance and toy cars, eggs, pens, and stackable cups. With each idea, Midgett had a way to take it to the next level by building stories around problems to make students more excited. One of his favorite experiments: presenting a murder note and having students investigate the chromatology on several ink pens to see who wrote it.

After the experiment, NC Science and Engineering Fair Director Judy Day walked through ways to guide students through an entire research project that students could enter into competitions. Similarly to Midgett, though, Day wants to expose children to the excitement of research from beginning to end.

“One of the most important things we can do is to get students engaged in doing hands-on,” Day said. “So it doesn’t always have to lead to a competition that they’re in, but being able to learn the entire process that scientists and engineers go through in their work — that it isn’t you just dive into something, you prepare yourself to gain a better understanding, and then get that background info to help you be able to solve that problem, that there are rules and regulations that guide the work that you do that you have to consider, and that it’s really fun stuff. It’s cool.”

She started with background research, then how to help students pick an interesting and original topic, then how to create a testable question, and so on. Teachers with similar subject concentrations formed groups like earlier to create rough drafts of their own plans for a research project. 

By the time lunch rolled around, Bonnie Adams, a K-5 science specialist at Piney Grove Elementary School in Kernersville, was impressed.

“I feel like this has been very helpful,” Adams said. “I’ve been to a very brief version of an overview of science and engineering fairs within our county, nothing that would even compare to what I’ve experienced today. I’ve had a lot of questions answered — kind of grey areas that I’ve always wondered about.”

Adams said that, as a science teacher, she does not want STEM to be another trend that passes when the next thing comes around.

“This is very exciting to me to see that, yeah, it does have a place, that it fits,” she said. “It’s not just a random idea that somebody’s running with. That’s been very exciting for me, so I can see how I can pull it all together, and seeing that there’s some collaboration going on here between science teacher, music teacher, media person, science specialist, is great too.”

Day said these opportunities for teachers are necessary to prepare the next generation for the questions they will soon face.

“The reality is that the problems we have today are going to have to be solved by people who can come up with new ideas, and if they’ve never learned to think outside of the box, then they can’t come up with those new solutions,” Day said. “It’s critical that we encourage students early on to not just copy what they see somebody else doing but to learn how to ask a new question and come up with an answer.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.