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STEM Classes Reap Benefits of Data Sharing

Freely shared drives and a growing body of scientific data prepares students of all ages for the fast-paced and fluid type of instruction that students in the 21st Century need to compete in a quickly evolving world and job market.

by Chris Henry, Kitsap Sun, Bremerton, Wash. / September 8, 2015
(TNS) --  "This is what three-month-old sea floor looks," said Professor Debbie Kelley of the University of Washington's School of Oceanography, pointing to a large iron-brown rock, pocked with molten bubbles of lava, frozen in time.

Kelley heads the UW's research of hydrothermal vents 300 miles off the coast of Washington. Thanks to miles of fiber optic cable and more than 100 remote sensors at the openings of underwater volcanic eruptions, Kelley and her crew can share with the world real time data and images of lava oozing from vents, flock-like clouds of microbes that thrive in the harsh climate and sea life that creeps into cooling areas.

Kelley's presentation on Aug. 11 was the appetizer for a group of teachers from Kitsap and North Mason counties taking part in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) training at the University of Washington. In the upcoming school year, the 36 teachers will bring technology similar to Kelley's into their own classrooms.

Over the summer, they built their own sensors with instruction from staff and students at the School of Oceanography. After Kelley's presentation, they activated the gadgets, and talked about ways they and their students might collect and share data from local streams and tidelands with each other and the wider scientific community.

Not exactly underwater volcanoes, but pretty heady stuff nonetheless.

"I've always been kind of a hands-on person, so for me it makes it that much more exciting. It makes it that much more relevant," said Jeff Winn, a wood shop and STEM teacher at South Kitsap High School. "There's some real buy in, because they built the sensors, and they're going to see real-time data."

The three-year teacher training, called Olympic STEM Pathways Partnership, is meant to prepare these educators for the fast-paced and fluid type of instruction students in the 21st Century need to compete in a quickly evolving world and job market. The program is funded through a $600,000 state grant obtained through Olympic Educational Service District 114, which supports schools in the Olympic and Kitsap peninsulas, and West Sound STEM Network, a partnership of educators, business leaders, government officials and the military.

How will teaching (and learning) look in the next decade? Or even the next two or three?

It's likely the defining lines between students and teachers, K-12 schools and postgraduate institutions, public entities and private business will become blurred through a growing body of scientific data freely shared.

The idea is that students are not passive learners, said Kareen Borders, OESD 114's director of STEM programs and outreach. They are budding scientists, technology experts, engineers and mathematicians, guided by teachers but driven by their own curiosity.

""It's not just something they're reading in a book or something someone's telling them from the front of the class," Winn said.

Winn showed off his sensor, which has a temperature gauge, data processing unit and Wi-Fi capability, housed inside a sealed PVC pipe. The units are relatively simple to build and cost about $100 apiece.

"It's basically a little homemade computer," Winn said.

He can place the sensor in water and collect data onto his laptop. Now that he knows how, his students can, too.

The teachers considered how they could use the sensors and what other measurements would yield meaningful data.

Katrina Bastian, a teacher at Hawkins Middle School in North Mason, wondered during a breakout brainstorming session if her class could find out how water temperature affects the number and timing of salmon returning to Sweetwater Creek and the Union River.

"One of my thoughts is using sensors in Eagle Harbor," said Todd Erler, who teaches at Bainbridge Island School District's Odyssey Multi-age Program. "It's a pretty sensitive marine environment that gets a lot of use."

Candace Barich, a fourth-grade teacher at South Colby Elementary in South Kitsap, said she'd like her students to measure the relative acidity of water at various locations on Curley Creek and see if there's any connection between Ph levels and the proximity of livestock.

"I also want to take a look at the local crayfish," she said.

The talk drifted to webcams and the technical challenges of mounting them inside the housing.

"As you can see, we're still figuring this out. It's brand new," Winn said. "It's kind of uncharted territory."

In theory, the teachers (and their kids) will find ways to tap into each others' data to compare notes and perhaps come to new conclusions about what the data mean to the health of their communities and the planet.

It's a whole new type of teaching and learning, and that collaboration is a key piece,

Borders said. "We are preparing students for jobs and careers that may not even exist yet."

This fledgling group of STEM Partnership teachers may be flying by the seat of their pants, but as they gain proficiency in the subject matter, technology and techniques, they'll become mentors for others in their districts. While the focus of the grant is environmental science, they'll also be strengthening their students analytical and math skills. All of that dovetails with Common Core standards for language arts and math, as well as Next Generation Science Standards that will replace the state's current science assessment system.

Because the program partners with higher education, it's likely to forge greater continuity between K-12 and postsecondary instruction, Borders said.

©2015 the KitsapSun (Bremerton, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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