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Fort Lewis College students share secrets of science with fifth-graders

Collaboration proves learning can be fun for everyone

For elementary school students, it’s always exciting when visitors come to class. But when you mix college students with robots and some molasses and honey, learning reaches a whole new level of engagement.

“This is a great example of our program of inquiry,” Florida Mesa Elementary School Principal Vanessa Fisher said about Fort Lewis College engineering students offering science, technology, engineering and math-related lessons as guest teachers. “It’s very, very fun, and learning should be fun.”

Assistant FLC professor Ryan N. Smith signed up his seven senior seminar students to visit the school’s fifth-graders after talking with Fisher, who happens to be his neighbor.

Smith has been involved in similar outreach programs in K-12 schools wherever he’s been a student or a teacher, including the University of Hawaii, the University of Southern California and in Australia.

“The focus is teaching STEM-related fields with hands-on activities, touching, feeling, playing, getting their hands dirty – sometimes getting the classroom dirty,” he said. “I like working with fifth- to seventh-graders, because you can really grab them and pull them into STEM. Older kids are great and can do amazing things, but they’ve already decided they’re interested in science.”

The classroom visits end up being as much of a learning experience for the FLC students as they are for the fifth-graders.

“We had to think what would be the most effective tools,” said Jake Faust, the team leader and a Skyhawks football player when he’s not studying engineering.

“We were fine-tuning it last week, pouring different fluids on top of each other to show what floats on what to teach density,” he said. “We had to clean for 45 minutes after we finished.”

In addition to teaching the lesson, Faust also spent time congratulating students who didn’t just repeat what others were saying.

“You’re being different,” he told one student who predicted the next ball would stop at the corn syrup layer while everyone else was guessing water. “I like that. In college, people don’t do peer pressure, they just don’t say anything because they don’t want to look stupid.”

Fifth-grader Jamie Dickson already knew a lot about science because his father, Jim Dickson, is a chemistry professor at the college.

“I knew what density was,” Jamie said, “but I didn’t know water was almost as dense as dish soap, or rubbing alcohol was less dense than water.”

While Faust and Brandon Belcher taught their lesson on viscosity and density in Lori Cheever’s classroom, Ken Tozer and Erik Hall were in Misty Smith’s class teaching basic robotics, which allowed Smith to teach students in Julia Kitchen’s class. During the FLC students’ three weeks at Florida Mesa, they’ll rotate through the three classrooms.

The robotics class included a lesson about programming motion sensors. The biggest challenge was persuading the eager fifth-graders to refrain from pushing a bright orange button on each robot. The button would cause the robot to roll toward the next robot in line and engage its motion sensor. Then that robot would roll forward and activate the robot in front of it. Finally, a successful chain reaction took place just as the bell rang to end class.

The outreach program culminates in a daylong field trip for the fifth-graders, where they’ll visit Rodgers Reservoir to see aquatic robots in action measuring water quality before touring FLC’s campus and robotics lab. FLC Provost Barbara Morris also has planned some academic activities for the day, Smith said.

The fifth-graders weren’t the only ones who thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

“I was driving back to campus after our first lesson,” Smith said, “and they said it was one of the best days ever. There was all this chatter and energy through the roof. They were so touched, so moved, and all this week they were saying ‘I’m going to add this, I’m going to change that.’”

abutler@durangoherald.com

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