Teacher Erin Martin decorates the walls of her Bullock Creek High School classroom with pop culture science flair.
Photos hang near the doorway, showing TV personalities such as Bill Nye The Science Guy, images from movies accompanied by science-themed quotes, and photos of her at a Star Trek convention, where she posed happily with actors from the popular TV and film franchise.
“I'm a Trekkie,” she admits proudly.
Even more than that, Martin is a self-professed pop culture science junkie. That characteristic helps inspire her love of learning real science, making it more accessible and fun. Making science more accessible and fun is a philosophy she tries to apply in her teaching approach.
Now, thanks to a community partnership aimed at improving K-12 education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), Martin has more resources than ever in empowering that philosophy.
Martin is one of 16 area educators participating in The Dow Corning Foundation/ Saginaw Valley State University STEM Community Partnership. Funded by a $254,000 Dow Foundation Grant, the project connects teachers with SVSU faculty and Dow Corning officials as they work on ideas for stimulating student interest in STEM.
Martin and each teacher involved in the partnership plans to discuss how the program impacts their classroom during a symposium Tuesday, May 31, from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in SVSU's Curtiss Hall banquet rooms. The event is free and open to the public.
Each teacher involved in the partnership develops lesson plans meant to engage students in STEM. Martin's project involves teaching students about the importance of seat belts on safety.
“I wanted to help my students learn but I also wanted to try to help people,” she said. “High school students do not wear their seat belts 100 percent of the time and the leading cause of death for teenagers 12- to 19-years-old is motor vehicle traffic accidents. I want to help save lives by increasing seat belt use.”
Martin isn't teaching that lesson simply by sharing math equations or using statistical analyses to illustrate seat belt safety. The lesson plan involves tasking students with assignments that involve real-life – albeit safe – simulations.
In Martin's classroom, not too far from those photos of celebrities, several boxes of Barbie Sisters Safari Cruiser toys are stacked against a wall. For the purposes of the classroom research, these miniature vehicles are used as stand-ins for the road-appropriate variety. Using sensory equipment purchased through The Dow Corning Foundation/SVSU STEM Community Partnership, her students are studying the physics of motor vehicle collisions.
The research is meant to give her students an idea of the devastating effects of crashes at higher speeds.
“The main question my project will answer,” she said, “is ‘Will measuring a small-scale crash and experiencing a life-sized simulated crash increase the seat belt use of physics students and increase their understanding of momentum?’”
The Dow Corning Foundation/SVSU STEM Community Partnership also connected Martin and her class with Dan Hinterman, an engineering and services manager at Dow Corning. Hinterman began visiting Martin's classes on a monthly basis in the fall, leading engineering-based activities while discussing the STEM industry with students.
One of Hinterman's first visits involved tasking students with designing miniature bridges using wooden construction sticks, rubber bands, masking tape and glue. The objective was to build a bridge spanning a 24-inch divide during an hour-long class. Students were grouped into several teams and competed against each other to see which bridge could carry the most weight.
Daniyelle Noel, a 16-year-old junior at the school, enjoyed the assignment.
“I really like that challenges like this force you to think outside the box, and I really enjoy the fun competitive way of presenting challenges,” she said.
Aaron Cummins, another 16-year-old junior, said hands-on activities such as those in Martin's physics class are more engaging for students than textbook-heavy assignments.
“I absolutely feel that these activities are inspiring to students,” Cummins said. “My classmates enjoy them also, and I think that many of them are surprised at how much fun engineering can be.”
Martin hopes both the lesson plans and networks made with the help of The Dow Corning Foundation/SVSU STEM Community Partnership will inspire her students to experience the same kind of “fun” in STEM that she experiences.
“I made a lot of connections through this program that will help me with this project and beyond,” Martin said. “I am grateful for the opportunity to work on a project that I think will have a huge impact on my students’ learning and lives.”