BELFAST, Maine — Last year, Jordan Dunlap of Belfast didn’t really like learning about science.
But this year, things are different, conceded the 15-year-old from Belfast, a student at Troy Howard Middle School.
“I understand a lot of it,” he said last week in his science class while measuring the results of an experiment on thermal energy. “It’s just fun.”
Jordan is one of about 1,300 middle school students in the state who are participating in a pilot program that aims to change the way Maine youngsters are taught science. The Maine Physical Sciences Partnership has brought together nearly 50 rural Maine middle schools, the University of Maine and the Maine Department of Education for a five-year study that was funded through a $12.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
Susan McKay is a University of Maine physics professor and director of the Maine Center for Research in STEM Education, or RiSE. She said that in the first year of the partnership, a task force made up of science and math teachers investigated ways to improve science classes in the state. This year, the second year, students across the state are designing their own science experiments as they dive into what she described as “project-based inquiry science.” The university has provided materials to help the students do these science labs.
All of this, experts believe, will help Maine students look at science in a different way — and become more likely to choose science- and math-based careers later on. And if Maine has a work force that is well-educated in the sciences, it could help entice more companies to the state, she said.
“There’s definitely concern around the country. It doesn’t matter what test you look at — our students don’t match up to international standards,” McKay said. “In Maine, it’s almost more of a concern that students are not choosing to go into science or math or engineering-related fields. And yet, this is an area where there’s job growth.”
She said she has enjoyed visiting participating schools this year and watching the science classes at work while she has evaluated the teaching techniques.
“There’s such a feeling of excitement and authenticity about what the students are doing — the scientific process,” she said. “They’re learning how to think and figure things out.”
Last week, three sixth graders at the Troy Howard School were so excited about an upcoming experiment to watch and sketch the phases of the moon, their words tumbled over each other as they described it.
“We’re going to look at the moon every single night!” exclaimed Eliot Ripley, 11, of Belfast.
Middle school is a perfect age for this kind of research effort, according to McKay.
“A lot of students in middle school might just close that door on math and science, saying, ‘I’m not good at this. I’m just not going to apply myself in these areas,’” she said. “But those subjects build on each other. It’s hard to catch up later on.”
The pilot program also will pay particular attention to attracting girls to science.
“We’ll be breaking down all of the data we collect by gender, to make sure that everybody gets something out of this,” she said.
Eliot Ripley and two of her friends certainly seemed to be getting something out of their science studies. The girls were delighted to talk about the volcanoes, wind, erosion, weather, soil, plate tectonics, rocks and minerals they’ve been learning about so far.
Allison DeFeo, 11, of Belmont, said her favorite subjects were “a tie” between language arts and science.
Carrie Walker, 12, of Searsmont said she has been enjoying the year.
“It’s a lot better than in the past. It’s a lot more fun,” she said. “I think people get a lot more out of it.”
Jen Curtis, a science teacher at Troy Howard Middle School, said it is exhilarating to have her students learn through designing and following through with their own experiments.
“The students don’t need to open a textbook daily,” she said. “They’re not reading science. They’re doing science.”
Her classroom was a focused, busy place the week before April vacation, as her seventh and eighth grade students began work on a thermal energy unit. They broke up into small groups and gathered bags of ice, hot water, beakers and thermometers as they prepared to begin by testing how ice affects the heat of water.
“Groups are not all going to be successful,” Curtis warned. “Science doesn’t work every single time you do it. You’re going to see some frustration, which is fine.”
As the students in her classroom made predictions, weighed the mass in the bags of ice and otherwise buckled down to work, the teacher said she has been enjoying being part of the pilot program.
“I think that what’s going on is the process of science,” she said. “What you’re seeing is social learning that’s hands-on.”
The students aren’t the only participants who have been busy collaborating this year, she said. Teachers have been sharing their knowledge and experiences also.
“The university is saying that we want science teachers to talk to each other. We want science teachers to collaborate,” Curtis said. “I can talk to other teachers in Bar Harbor or in Hampden. My collaboration’s not just in this building. There’s a wealth of knowledge. And none of us are working in isolation.”
According to McKay, having teachers around the state work closely together is positive.
“The idea of districts working together and using the same instructional resources is really powerful,” she said.
Some students might move from one district to another — and if the schools had similar science curricula, they likely would keep their momentum going.
Hunter Merchant, a 13-year-old from Belfast, said she has been enjoying all the experiments.
“I like science a lot better this year,” she said. “Last year, all we really did was worksheets.”
For McKay, this is a hopeful kind of feedback.
“It’s really all about working with the schools,” she said of the partnership. “Helping students learn science — and also love science.”