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Science for Tomorrow: U-M Museum of Natural History aids teachers during a hybrid school year

By Sydney Hawkins

Scythian Media

GARDEN CITY—Teaching middle schoolers can be challenging during any given year, but this year was especially so.

Shelley Lesko, a science teacher at Garden City Middle School, can attest. Lesko is one of the thousands of school teachers in Michigan who had to shift gears several times due to unforeseen COVID-19-related challenges and setbacks.

“We were completely virtual at the beginning of the year, and then we went to a hybrid classroom where some kids were at home and some were in person,” said Lesko, who teaches 7th and 8th graders. “It is really hard to teach hands-on science in this situation.”

Shelley Lesko, a science teacher at Garden City Middle School, worked with the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History to determine which hands-on experiments would be most useful to her students.

During a normal year, Lesko’s lessons would include interactive labs where her students would share supplies and work in group settings—something that was not possible with this year’s COVID-19 protocols that included strict social distancing and sanitization guidelines. Not to mention the kids at home that would not be able to participate.

A bit of relief came this year when Jeanna Fox, outreach manager for the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, connected with her to ask how they could help.

Jeanna Fox, outreach manager for the UMMNH, connected with Garden City along with schools in Ypsilanti and Detroit to identify hands-on experiments that would be most useful for their curriculum.

Fox worked with Lesko and other science teachers at Garden City Middle School, Washtenaw International Middle Academy in Ypsilanti and Cesar Chavez Middle Academy in Detroit to identify hands-on experiments that would be most useful for their curriculum.

Fox then coordinated with museum staff to assemble and distribute more than 1,575 science kits to students in the three schools that included safety glasses, beakers, thermometers, rulers, rubber gloves and other elements needed for their lessons. The kits accompanied a virtual Science for Tomorrow program that was in lieu of the museum’s traditional on campus program that serves up to 150 students each year.

The experiments, funded by a Broader Impacts grant from the National Science Foundation, were based on the research of three U-M faculty: Gyorgyi Csankovszki, professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology; Dominika Zgid, associate professor of chemistry; and Selena Smith, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences.

They provided teachers with accompanying lesson plans, worksheets, videos and slide presentations to accompany the kits.

“I definitely liked it. I like doing hands-on things,” said Alex Bargeon, a student in Lesko’s class who hopes to work in the medical field one day. “I like to know how things work, and it is definitely different when you can touch and feel stuff.”

For Isabella Ziobron, another one of Lesko’s students, the kits provided a fun way to reengage after a rough few months of taking virtual classes.

“Science is one of my favorite subjects because figuring out how things work is really cool to me,” she said. “I had a hard time doing online learning, so I liked doing the experiments, learning about endothermic and exothermic [reactions].”

Garden City Middle School students use the museum’s science kits, which accompanied a virtual Science for Tomorrow program that was in lieu of the museum’s traditional on campus program.

Over the past decade, hundreds of middle schoolers have visited the museum and its research labs as part of Science for Tomorrow, a program that welcomes students from at-risk communities that are underrepresented in STEM fields and on college campuses.

“We had been working with Shelley and others at schools in southeast Michigan for many years as part of our Science for Tomorrow program,” Fox said. “Though the museum’s doors were closed this year, we were doing everything we could to figure out how to help these teachers and schools that we had worked closely with before.”

As part of the program, the middle schoolers also get a chance to experience college life by touring campus, staying in dorms and eating in the cafeterias. Lesko’s students especially enjoyed interacting with college students and scientists during their campus visits.

“This field trip is always a highlight for my students—many of them get the experience of stepping onto a college campus for the first time,” she said. “While we weren’t able to go to the museum this year, we were thankful that they were able to continue the program in this way.”

The science kits provided by the museum would be one of the only times this year where Lesko’s at-home learners were able to have almost the exact same hands-on experiences that her in-person learners had.

“Any given school year, finding the time to complete the curriculum and the budget to do it are always challenges that we face as teachers,” she said. “It was meaningful that the museum stepped in and provided countless hours putting the kits together and covering costs for the materials.”

As a Title 1 school, many students participating are on free or reduced lunch programs, so the kits were delivered to at-home learners as part of this distribution process.

“The pandemic has stretched teachers to their limit,” said Fox, who taught science for 17 years before working at the museum. “I have also worked at schools with at-risk populations and with similar resource issues, so it was especially important to me to figure out a way to help.”

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