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New science elective at Newark Junior High

By Miriam G. Mazliach

October 15, 2013

The excitement in the students’ voices could be heard upon entering the classroom of teacher Kerry Knight at Newark Junior High. To a visiting observer, it was evident that the students were interacting and actively engaged in their learning as part of STEM Explorations, a brand new science elective class. The one-year course, developed by Knight and fellow science teacher Mark Dieter, focuses on (STEM) science, technology, engineering and math, concepts and skills beyond what is generally covered in the 7th and 8th grade science curriculum.

As designed by the teachers, the course includes units on: Introduction to STEM, Exploring Energy and Photovoltaics, Electricity and Magnetism, Robotics, Environmental Science, Engineering and Bridges, and Cardboard Boat Competition.

Being a project-oriented class, the program affords students multiple hands-on opportunities to design, construct, and explore, thereby maximizing the learning process. Students learn principles of engineering and use computers to collect and analyze their data. Additionally, guest speakers from related STEM fields are scheduled to visit and speak with the students as part of career exploration.

Inside the classroom, the students are split into six lab stations, and currently are working on an energy unit. Students are encouraged to do some of the teaching during group work, taking turns teaching one another about the several types of energy transformations.

At another table, students are testing energy levels in an apple; the further the probe is pushed inside the apple, the higher the readings. Data is then recorded by students in their notebooks. Other stations deal with live wires, relationships between batteries and motors, chemical and thermal reactions, and potential and kinetic energy. Students must write a hypothesis about each lab and then an assessment to determine if they can prove their theory or not.

Student Aaron Valadez said, “I get to experiment and learn; see how I can apply what I learn to the real world and how things work.”

According to Knight, the idea for the elective class began building after Nancy Thomas, Newark Unified School District (NUSD) Board member, secured the (PS3) Partners for Student Success in Science grant for NUSD science at the K-8 level in 2005. The five year grant provided the district and the junior high science department with professional development sessions each summer and during the school year.

Afterwards, a three-year grant, the Noyce Master Teachers Program, was obtained through the National Science Foundation. “With the availability of teacher online learning modules through the NSTA Learning Center, the entire science department of Newark Junior High was able to keep current with the latest technological trends and be able to access the vast amounts of resources available on the site,” stated Knight. “Mark and I purposely took NSTA course work that would enhance our knowledge and provide a better background to teach our STEM classes,” he added.

Over the past few summers, Knight and Dieter attended the NEED (National Energy Education Development Project) at Cal Berkeley, to learn more about photovoltaics and alternative energy, as well as observed STEM events and programs at Ohlone College.

After being submitted, Knight and Dieter’s course outline was approved by the Newark School Board and Curriculum Council. Knight and Dieter are hoping to expand the course as they go along but are following the outline they developed.

Knight who has been teaching for 31 years and graduated from Newark schools, emphasizes, “I want to provide opportunities for my students with the goal of bringing STEM awareness to kids. At the end of the year’s program, the students will select a STEM career, do a research project on it and present to the class.”

Dieter in his 13th year of teaching says, “We’re trying to get kids thinking creatively in a science class. My impression is that kids who are good at math and science feel they don’t or can’t have the ability to be creative in junior high and high school. We’re losing that talent. I hope to get them working on these projects where kids have to learn to come up with ideas on their own.”

Knight hopes that the class will get kids excited and motivate out of the box thinking, creative solutions and inspire kids and particularly young women to enter the STEM fields.

“The difference in this class is the focus on the science process and skills more than science facts,” explains Dieter. “This is the next shift in science standards as far as teaching -- doing science, not just learning facts.”

Most of the projects require many consumable supplies to create the engineering structures and donations would be gladly accepted to help defray the cost of the materials. For more information about the class or to donate, please contact Kerry Knight or Mark Dieter at Newark Junior High, (510) 818-3050.


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