CAER 101 pairs scientists, fourth-graders in mutual exchange
Author: Tammy L. Lane • First Posted: Monday, April 07, 2014
Lab teachers at Yates, Liberty and Russell Cave elementaries have teamed up with scientists from the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER) to develop engaging experiments and hands-on demonstrations for fourth-graders. By all accounts, it’s a grand slam for all three schools.
The work began last fall when a group of research scientists and engineers from CAER sat down with the three teachers to brainstorm ways to approach the Next Generation Science Standards from new angles.
“The two groups brought such different perspectives and skill sets to the table,” Josh Radner of Yates recalled. “We teachers needed some help to grasp the specialized science behind some of the CAER projects, while the researchers needed some assistance to think from the perspective of our 10-year-olds so that they could craft lessons to make the science ideas behind their work accessible to kids.”
CAER staffers have visited the schools several times this semester to present such topics as defining energy, exploring energy and force, creating simple batteries, making motors, using motors to make electricity, weighing the economic and environmental costs of biofuels, and harnessing solar power. These modules help illustrate the curriculum content that the teachers cover in class.
In a recent session at Yates, engineers Andy Placido and Jack Groppo explained the concept of using work or movement to make electricity. The demo included kid-powered mini turbines that lit an LED bulb and rotated plastic fan blades. The green-team students also learned how additional wire, faster spinning or a stronger magnet would produce more electricity. Toward the end of the hour-long after-school session, the CAER team also touched on hydroelectric, wind and nuclear power.
“Part of our mission at UK is outreach, and this is an easy way to give back,” Placido said, adding, “Hopefully it gets them interested.” Groppo agreed. “We need scientists and engineers,” he said. “If we can convince one of these kids to go into science, it’s worth it.”
CAER 101 is the latest expansion of ties with Fayette County Public Schools. CAER has partnered with Russell Cave Elementary for more than 10 years, offering experiments in the classroom and hosting tours at its nearby facilities. That connection grew into the annual Energy Fair, when CAER welcomes more than 300 fourth-graders from several schools for a day of exhibits in the UK Student Center.
“CAER’s goal is to now provide lessons, resources and access to their expertise to teachers throughout the county and beyond,” said Julie Jones of Russell Cave. “The students get very excited about the CAER visits and have had many questions to ask them. I am very thankful to have active scientists within the energy field as role models for my students.”
Kristi Fehr of Liberty Elementary echoed that sentiment. “The students are so engaged when one of these scientists comes into the school,” she said. “They bring with them tools not found in the average classroom. They also bring perspective to how an abstract idea like energy applies to things we use in everyday life. It’s a chance to show kids how the subject matter could lead to a career path that may help solve a problem or lead to new technology.”
Shiela Medina, associate director for development and community engagement with CAER, is pleased with the program’s success in supplementing science classrooms. “We’ve developed activities to bring home those concepts. It’s an experiment to show how something works – to make you think,” she said. “This is our test run to see if it works. Our ultimate goal is to package this program and train other professionals to go into schools. We’ve got these really cool scientists going into the classrooms and they’re getting that one-on-one interaction. That’s what has made the Russell Cave program such a success. That’s where we’re hoping this program can go.”
“We have an interest, as a university and as researchers, to try to capture kids and get them interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math),” Medina noted. “How do you get into those little sponge minds and get them totally interested in what we’re doing and let them see that science is something everybody can do?”
Yates’ Radner sees tremendous potential in making connections between working scientists at the university level and FCPS students at all levels. “For my elementary kids, meeting the CAER scientists and engineers and learning about the work that they do can really broaden their perspectives on the world, especially since the CAER crews are engaged in such diverse and relevant research projects,” Radner said. “Meeting one of these folks just might be the turning point in a child's life when she decides to be a scientist or engineer when she grows up.”
The driving force behind CAER 101 was Marybeth McAlister, the CAER communications manager who died unexpectedly in January. The CAER staff and FCPS teachers have pressed on with the project in part as a tribute to her.