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Teacher on the “art and science of the design process” after STEM training

mapleton students

Science has beakers and Bunsen burners, of course, but it also has pencils, paper and PowerPoint. As a scientist conducts experiments, he or she records the results and presents them to others.

Giving science teachers insight into how real laboratories operate — so they can pass that knowledge to their students — is the aim of the Rural Literacy Design Collaborative. The recent effort, made possible by a successful application to Ohio’s Straight A Fund, gave some middle and high school teachers in northern Ohio access to working scientists and engineers who helped the teachers create design-based science lessons to tackle real-world problems. The key: Every lesson got students writing and reading in the way scientists and engineers read and write in their jobs.

One of the collaborative’s participants, Tony Bunt, a life sciences teacher at Mapleton High School in Ashland, Ohio, shared his experiences:

Q: Tell us about the Rural Literacy Design Collaborative and your participation in it.

Tony Bunt

Mapleton teacher Tony Brunt on working with scientists and engineers from Battelle

A: The Rural LDC is a collection of schools in the Ashland, Ohio, area — Black River, Hillsdale, Loudonville-Perrysville, Northwestern Local and Mapleton districts — that have smaller student populations and more isolated teaching groups within the districts. The Rural LDC provides professional development and training to produce design-based learning activities for the classroom.

Teachers completed two modules about taking students through the design process and producing a product and a product report. The concept is similar to what engineers do.

Battelle brought in engineers to assist the teachers in designing their modules. Each teacher designed a module around what his or her students were learning at the time.

My students participated in a project involving protocols for Escherichia coli (E. coli) growth and producing and testing growth agar with the aim of developing a cost effective way of growing E. coli in the lab. They reported their work in a design notebook and wrote a final report that was more than 10 pages in length.

Q: How did the Battelle science training that you received in the collaborative impact your teaching, and, subsequently, your students?

A: Battelle trained the teachers in the art and science of the design process. This involved testing and researching ideas. The module that we designed as teachers was like a design project in itself, and the students followed the designing process closely.

The project that my students participated in was unique and fun. We have a group of microbiologists at Mapleton now. Many of the students used the knowledge they gained in the project and applied it to a science fair project. We took home the most overall superiors and the highest overall percentage of superiors at our local district science fair.

A lot of this was because of the great group of students I had this year, but some success can be attributed to going through the design process so thoroughly.

The design process is like designing a great experiment. My students learned a great deal about bacteria and growth agar so they incorporated that knowledge into their projects and came out with fantastic recognition. As I mentioned earlier, though, I have amazing students to work with — probably a once-in-a-lifetime group. I will miss them as they move on to the next phase of their lives.

Q: You met with a Battelle science engineer. What was your takeaway from that?

A: I was blown away at the scale of projects done by the engineers at Battelle. It is hard to directly apply biology to what they do, but I connected with certain elements of the design process. Most important was the design and redesign that take place before a project is complete.

Q: Have you been working with other teachers in the collaborative? 

A: We did collaborate in our meetings, and the work I was doing with my students was confirmed by their feedback. We have great teachers in our small, rural schools. We can be stretched thin, though, because most of us teach multiple subjects. It can be a lot, and it was good to hear the other teachers’ feedback that we are all on the right path for the kids.

Q: Will you continue to participate in the collaborative going forward? 

A: My goal in teaching is to keep working on the design process. I love the idea that kids have to “embrace the struggle” of design and that all good things worth learning usually come with struggle before it “clicks.”

If you look at the greatest scientific minds throughout history, they didn’t wake up one day and have the answers to all of life’s biggest mysteries. It takes hard work to gain the skills needed, but, in the end, it’s worth it.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about the collaborative?

A: The biggest thing I can say about the process is to really challenge yourself to see what great idea you can come up with. The low-hanging fruit might be easy to reach, but there is something to be said about going farther up the tree.

I could have done a number of different things with my students, but we chose to study microbiology, and now I have kids who love biology. We went to science lectures at the university, and they even want to get T-shirts made up because they have so much pride in what they’ve learned.

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