Diamond Weakley had a sense she wanted to become a science teacher someday. Now, the seventh grader at Thompson Middle School in Saginaw is quite sure of it.
“Classes like this help me feel that way,” Weakley said of the learning taking place inside the science class of teacher Lori Hall.
Hall is tasking Weakley and 70 of her peers with growing plants without the use of soil. It's a long-established practice known as hydroponics, but putting that practice to play inside Hall's classroom is a new initiative she said was made possible by a Saginaw Valley State University and Dow Corning Foundation partnership aimed at piquing K-12 student interest and improving attitudes in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
“They're getting excited about the work,” she said of her students. “They want to come to class. None of them are tardy.”
The Dow Corning Foundation/SVSU STEM Community Partnership this year began training and funding supplies for 13 select K-12 teachers - including Hall - in Saginaw, Bay, Midland and Tuscola counties.
Last year, Hall said her science teachings largely relied on study assignments and exams. With the training and resources provided by the STEM partnership, this year's classroom activities focus more on hands-on learning.
“It's more application than investigation,” she said. “They're designing, they're investigating and they're figuring out problems instead of looking up the answers. They're more involved.”
Hall's hydroponics assignment involves tasking groups of two to four students with building an apparatus that will grow plants without the use of soil. One of the early stages of the project involved constructing a network of pipes that eventually will feed water to the plants.
During an early October class, Weakley and her two group members were drilling holes into the pipes when the girl reminded her peers of a lesson learned:
“We're all going to have to help, because you remember what happened last time,” Weakley said, getting a laugh out of the group.
“What happened last time” was that her teammates, Tamareyon Steward and Xavier Walker, weren't holding the pipes steady when Weakley began drilling, causing some of the equipment to come undone.
It was a lesson learned by all in the group. That element of teamwork has boosted the impact of STEM education. Hall said she also has noticed the improved learning outcomes in several special needs students whose work with the hands-on assignments has become indistinguishable from the rest of the students.
“They don't need as much help,” Hall said of special needs students this year compared to previous years.
Yet they do have help - as does Hall herself. She is working together with Amanda Ross, SVSU lecturer of biology, as part of the project. Each teacher involved in the program is teamed with SVSU faculty as part of the partnership, which was funded by a $254,000 Dow Corning Foundation grant.
“I feel like I have more resources and more connections now at Saginaw Valley,” Hall said. “I can call them up and say, ‘Hey, tell me what you think about this.’ I feel like I have a connection out there. It's been so helpful.”