Creating a Spark: Science Foundation Arizona Graduate Students Take the Challenge to “Educate, Translate and Communicate”

Last October hundreds of Flagstaff fifth-graders gazed into the dark night sky at distant stars with their self-built “Galileoscopes.” Seven months later, in May, many of those same students peered through jewelers’ loupes to study, up close, what they soon learned was the inside skeleton of a prickly pear cactus. Several of the 10-year-olds told Barbara Hickman, superintendent of the Flagstaff United School District, that it looked like the same lens was used in both programs.

“They pulled together these disparate elements to make the leap,” she says. “They understood the connection with optics.”

On May 23, nearly 600 students in 20 Flagstaff classrooms had the chance to make this and other connections with the help of about 60 Graduate Research Fellows (GRFs) from Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University. These fellows, backed by Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz), described their research projects to elementary and middle-school students as part of this year’s SFAz Grand Challenge Summit. The title and goal of this third summit: “Educate. Translate. Communicate.”

This teaching experience “was my favorite part of the conference,” notes Tyler Norton, a GRF from ASU. “I always look forward to an opportunity to work with children and try to give some insight into what I do as a researcher. I think I enjoy it because I know how much I would have liked to have that experience as a young student.”

But Norton and the other GRFs did something more. They used the exercise of analyzing a mysterious object with a magnifying lens to show and explore how scientists think. They asked them to come up with analogies to explain what they were seeing. One student said that the skeletal structure reminded him of the weaving in a quilt. Another saw interconnecting highways. A third envisioned blood vessels.

“We tried to give them the message that scientists think in the same way they do, just in finer detail,” explained Norton, whose research involves high-temperature gas separation with membranes. “Everyone’s research can be explained to a fifth-grader as long as you break it down.”

This was just the kind of experience that Superintendent Hickman believes can help educate and inspire students in a world with increasingly complex problems. “How do we do better than teaching to the test?” she asks. “How do we encourage innovation? How do we encourage creativity rather than kill it?

“A program like this is important in all of our schools,” Hickman adds. “It’s good to talk through why you are interested in things. Part of the beauty of science and math is to think about unanswered questions.”

Hickman also has taken advantage of an SFAz grant to incorporate optics and astronomy into the curriculum with student field trips to the Challenger Space Center in Peoria. This is part of her ongoing effort to more fully integrate education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) throughout the district’s schools. “There is strong community interest in Flagstaff for supporting STEM education,” she says.

For Norton, who looks forward to teaching again, he was excited by the possibility that his efforts with one class of fifth-graders made a difference. “Hopefully it will provide a spark for a few students. As these kids enter middle school, maybe their interest in science and math could change because they see that people can and do use it in the real world to solve real problems.”

Click here to learn more about Science Foundation Arizona and STEM education across our state.