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Clarkson Helps Area Schools Teach Hands-on, Project-based Science

Not many middle school students would volunteer to pick through the trash bins from the school cafeteria. But seventh and eighth graders from Colton-Pierrepont and Parishville-Hopkinton school districts are doing just that this fall — not to mention watching food decompose, growing micro-organisms and learning the chemical content of items we throw away in the trash.

The activities are the result of a $950,000 multi-year grant Clarkson received from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to run programs that take a message of excitement about science, environmental awareness, career education and tools for problem-solving into the local schools.

Graduate students from Clarkson are developing and teaching new hands-on, experiment-based science and technology curriculum units to seventh and eighth graders at Colton-Pierrepont Central School and Parishville-Hopkinton Central School.

The classes are based on an approach called project-based learning, in which students must identify a problem, learn about it, come up with solutions, and test those solutions. The problem the middle school students are tackling this year: what to do about leftover food in the cafeteria.

“They will look at composting as a solution for reducing the solid wastes,” said Susan Powers, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Clarkson and director of the project. “So during the year they are going to learn about biology of microorganisms, about chemistry, about physical science. The technology class is going to design and build compost bins. And the science class will look at the best way to compost, such as the ratio of different materials, the ideal temperature and the chemical composition.”

Students learn by doing rather than through lectures and memorization.

A recent lesson for seventh graders involved determining whether organic or inorganic items decomposed more quickly, and whether there was a difference in the rate of decomposition when using compost or sterile soil. For the experiment, each student buried an item in either compost or sterile soil; these included a lime wedge, metal, pear, Styrofoam, tomato, cardboard, and watermelon.

Colton-Pierrepont science teacher Walter Kissam assists the Clarkson students and complements the project-based learning with additional science lessons on the other days. Kissam says this approach is effective: “The excitement level is high. They’re engaged. It doesn’t get better than this.”

As well, he points out that New York State’s new standards call for just this type of activity.

The project-based learning activities are an integrated piece of the two school districts’ 7th and 8th grade science and technology curriculum. “We have very enthusiastic teachers,” said Powers. “The schools are really thinking about innovative ways to do things.”

Does this mean that the school cafeterias will start composting their solid waste? “The ultimate goal is not to develop a long-term solution,” said Powers. “That would be great, of course, but the main purpose is to use this as a vehicle to teach science and math and how to solve problems.”

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Annie Harrison, Director of Media Relations, at 315-268-6764 or]

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