Environmental science takes a hands-on approach

Students at Milwaukee’s Tenor High School

Students at Milwaukee’s Tenor High School were enthusiastic about their new hands-on environmental science project. Photo by Annie Levendusky

First-year teacher Annie Levendusky of Tenor High School in Milwaukee was extremely happy with her students’ reaction to an environmental science lesson she developed in partnership with UWM faculty.

Her students “were way more engaged than I’d ever seen them before,” she says. “They were working, cooperating and sharing results. Their reaction was so positive…it was something every teacher hopes for with every lesson they plan.”

The Tenor students were studying the impact of environmental factors like caffeine, tobacco and alcohol on developing zebrafish embryos. The hands-on research lesson was made possible through a SEPA (Science Education Partnership Award) grant that brings together 22 city and suburban schools with educators and scientists at UWM who are working on environmental issues.

“It’s amazing what UWM has helped us bring to the classroom.”

– Amy Zientek,
Union Grove High School

The program is funded through a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to the Children’s Environmental Health Sciences Core Center, a collaboration involving UWM, the Medical College of Wisconsin and the Children’s Research Institute.

Seeing the impact

The center, which studies how environmental factors impact children, includes this education component to encourage high school students in hands-on study of environmental issues, says David Petering, distinguished professor of chemistry at UWM and leader of the project. “Students are carrying out authentic science in the classroom.”

Educators and UWM scientists are also involved. Craig Berg, professor of education at UWM and an expert on teaching science, is co-leader of the project, and researchers from UWM’s WATER Institute are resources for the high school teachers.

“It’s amazing what UWM has helped us bring to the classroom,” says Amy Zientek, a science teacher at Union Grove High School who is in her second year with the program. “We were able to do research in the classroom so the students could not just talk about, but actually see the impact of environmental agents.”

The students also benefited from guest lectures and discussions with working environmental researchers like Daniel Weber and Henry Tomasiewicz of the WATER Institute, Zientek adds.

The environmental education partnership, which involved eight local high schools last year, expanded to include 22 schools this year. The program also includes other environmental science modules for teachers – a hands-on investigation of the impact of lead on fathead minnow reproductive behaviors and a study of the effect of environmental factors on earthworms.

A supplemental grant from SEPA this year also will enhance the program for teachers and students, says Petering. For example, Mass Embryo Production System (MEPS) units will help provide zebrafish embryos for the teachers. Written materials and instructions for teachers will be supplemented with how-to videos and an online archive of slides.

The supplemental grant is funding an online, searchable library of related papers, reviews and websites, and the development of three-dimensional molecular models for the zebrafish module. The models project is being done in collaboration with faculty at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, according to Petering.

Lessons with relevance

Students at Tenor High School studied the impact of environmental factors on developing zebrafish embryos (inset). Photo by Annie Levendusky

The UWM team worked with biology and environmental science teachers to develop the hands-on experiences and lessons. In the case of the zebrafish embryo experiment, for example, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol were among the environmental factors tested. “We try to pick examples that are relevant to the students,” says Petering.

“You could see the wheels turning,” says Levendusky. “It really got them thinking about health and things women do when they are pregnant. ”

Teachers who were part of the project took part in a one-week summer workshop to learn the science and teaching techniques for the experimental programs, and the UWM team provided ongoing support through Renee Hesselbach, the program’s outreach specialist and liaison to the teachers.

The researchers at the WATER Institute, including Tomasiewicz, Weber and Michael Carvan, also provided support to the teachers.

“I was in contact with Renee a lot about the logistics,” says Levendusky, “and Henry was a huge help, especially when I was going through the module. When I had questions, he guided me through and helped answer the kids’ questions. When we finished the module, we Skyped with Henry for 45 minutes. He answered questions and elaborated on what they do at the WATER Institute.”

Forming scientists – and informed citizens

The SEPA project helps schools do environmental science work they otherwise couldn’t afford, particularly in underfunded urban school districts like Milwaukee Public Schools.

“Especially coming from a small school with a limited budget, there is no way we could have done something like this on our own,” says Tenor’s Levendusky.

One of the goals of the program is to encourage more students to get excited about science, particularly environmental science, says Petering. But the program also helps students start thinking more about environmental issues. Even those who don’t become scientists can become informed citizens, more aware of environmental issues, according to the teachers.

And students also learn how to present their work like scientists do. A conference at UWM on April 3 will highlight some of the presentations and papers from this year’s research.

“Doing the science is only half of what researchers do,” says Petering. “The other half is communication of the results.”