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November 5, 2014

Dow Corning Foundation and SVSU growing ‘love of science and math’ at Bay City Western Middle School

Allison VanDriesscheThe final bell rings, marking the end of another school day, but instead of emptying, Bay City Western Middle School's Room 229 begins to fill with students. Before long, teacher Allison VanDriessche's sees a criss-crossing blur of activity, energy and enthusiasm.

It's a typical scene in her new after-school science program, where 30 students performing the day's biology-based experiments become, themselves, a living demonstration of causality.

The cause: VanDriessche and her forward-thinking curriculum, inspired in part by her participation in the Dow Corning Foundation/Saginaw Valley State University STEM Community Partnership.

The planned effect: Generating student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics - or STEM - that endures throughout their academic lives and perhaps beyond that. The hope is that the Dow Corning Foundation/SVSU partnership will inspire students such as those in VanDriessche's program to eventually pursue a profession in Michigan's many STEM-based industries.

It's still early in the initiative, VanDriessche admits, but the results appear promising so far.

“They're having a positive experience,” she said of her students.

In the after-school program's first weeks, VanDriessche's experiments involve students creating a system of symbiosis between plants, worms and fish. In one corner of the room is an aquarium of goldfish. In another corner is a container of soil housing worms. When the students are finished building the networked infrastructure, the worms and fish will produce food for the plants, and vice versa.

The project fits the young aspirations of students such as Katelyn Skelley.

“I love science and math,” she says. “I want to do aquaponics because I like fish.”

Skelley prefers the hands-on work of VanDriessche's after-school program rather than the textbook-and-test approach of some of her previous science classes.

Jason Perry, another sixth grader participating in the class, shares that sentiment.

“I love working with plants and animals,” said Perry, a self-professed prospective veterinarian. “I'm learning a lot here.”

So is VanDriessche. The teacher says the Dow Corning Foundation/SVSU STEM Community Partnership continues to be a boon to her own development as an educator.

Over the summer, she began working with Amanda Ross, SVSU lecturer of biology, as part of the STEM collaboration. Since then, the two brainstorm ideas for assignments aimed at stimulating interest in science from the middle school crowd.

VanDriessche isn't alone in the effort. In all, 13 teachers from K-12 school districts across the region are paired with SVSU as part of the partnership, funded by a $254,000 Dow Corning Foundation grant.

“I've learned a lot at Saginaw Valley,” VanDriessche said. “It's been interesting to implement what I've learned in the class.”

Her students appear to feel the same way. About an hour after they began handling plants, monitoring goldfish, examining soil and seeds, and building the physical infrastructure that will bring all those elements together, the day's program is finished.  

After her sixth graders leave Room 229 to meet their waiting parents and bus rides home, the room is much more quiet and their projects much further along than when the day began.

“That,” VanDriessche said, “is organized chaos right there.”

And, so far, it's working.