Science projects let students answer 'those whys?'
St. Leo science teacher Tracy Borth was impressed by the topics chosen by students at this year's science fair. Their projects explored issues about the environment, nutrition and other areas being studied by scientists in the real world. Seventh-grade student Duncan Gregory's "The Time 2 Shine" project measured how much energy can be collected by solar panels during different times of day. Asked to explain why he chose his topic, Duncan said, "I've always wanted to learn more about energy." The 12-year-old investigated geothermal energy last year, and one day wants to "learn how to make energy from the moon," he said. Borth described the hands-on learning that happens while doing a science project as an invaluable experience for her students. "You don't know what's going to happen. And you don't know the results," said Duncan. He and other students get to apply what they've learned in class to explore their science-based questions - sometimes finding answers that may help a classmate and their family, Borth said. St. Leo science fair judge Miranda Woodall, an Alltech lab technician active in the biotechnology company's education outreach efforts, said she was glad to see so many St. Leo students enthusiastic about their science projects. More importantly, she was happy that students were using the scientific method to explore questions that interest them. "I love how they're taking something that they know in their daily life," said Woodall, "and they seem to be just curious about it - and just answering those whys?" Woodall and Amanda Gehma, an animal nutritionist at Alltech, had just finished talking to seventh-grader Raylee Carrico about her science project, which concluded that St. Leo fourth- and fifth-graders preferred natural, not artificial, flavoring in bottle water, based on blind-taste tests. "They see the scientific method from the other side," said Principal Helena DiBiasie of the taste test participants. ".It helps solidify why the (scientific) process is important." A longtime science teacher, DiBiasie described listening to the feedback from professional scientists as invaluable to St. Leo students as they work to improve their projects from one year to the next. "I try to get them to think about the research they've done and how that (background exploration) relates to the project they've done, and why they're seeing the results they're seeing," said Woodall. She said the scientific method used by St. Leo students for their projects is practiced by real-world scientists every day.
"It's not always about getting it correct the first time," said Gehma, "but understanding how you can improve (the use of the scientific method to come up with a valid conclusion) for the future." Students in kindergarten, first- and second-grade do class projects at St. Leo School annually, third-graders do small-group projects, while fourth- and fifth-graders do individual projects, with guidance from their teacher. Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are responsible for using the scientific method on individual projects, which include a written report to explain their findings. One of significant difference in this year's science projects, when compared to past years', according to DiBiasie, was a use of technology. One example was eighth-grader Monica Seitz, who used an iPad while presenting "The Power of Peer Pressure," to judges. When asked if he'd like to pursue a career in science, Duncan said he wants to become an engineer so he can "learn more about cars, airplanes and how the world works." Even if a student never becomes a scientist, Gehma said, it's valuable for everyone to learn about science because it will affect their daily life. So having some understanding of the scientific method helps them look at results "critically" so they can "identify bad science as well as good science," she added. ".Sometimes, you get a lot of junk science so it's important to know what's good and bad." St. Leo seventh- and eighth-graders will have an opportunity to compete in regional and state science fairs later in the year.