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‘Science Roadshow’ Brings UW Student Research into Wyoming Schools

December 19, 2017
man standing at table full of middle school students
Logan Fairbourn, a UW senior majoring in microbiology, discusses science concepts with sixth-grade students at Sheridan Junior High School recently. Fairbourn is part of a group conducting a “Science Roadshow” in which he and others travel to Wyoming K-12 schools to provide active-learning classroom lessons based on Fairbourn’s research that uses bacterial cellulose to make clothing items. (Sarah Hackworth Photo)

A University of Wyoming faculty member and three students have been visiting K-12 classrooms across the state this fall in an effort to promote UW’s Science Initiative and active-learning concepts in the classroom.

In what they term the “Science Roadshow,” Rachel Watson and UW students Logan Fairbourn, Natalie Thibault and Kali Nicholas visit students and provide science lessons centered on Thibault’s and Fairbourn’s research converting bacterial cellulose into textiles such as keychains, watchbands and earrings.

“From kindergarten to community college students, we want to create meaningful active-learning sessions,” says Watson, interim director of UW’s Science Initiative Learning Activity Mentoring Program (LAMP), and a senior lecturer of microbiology and biochemistry. “We want to bring in Logan’s research and simultaneously interest students. We want to make students recognize there is something in college for everyone.”

The group’s most recent stop was to Sarah Hackworth’s sixth-grade science students at Sheridan Junior High School Dec. 7. Watson’s group met with three different classes as well as the after-school Earth Team.

In the Sheridan outreach science lessons provided, the UW group did not have students fashion products out of the material. Rather, students were engaged in the science behind the project. Three different experiments were conducted with each class.

Thibault, a senior from Cheyenne and a first-generation college student, says the group went through the process of determining production yields in different metabolite treatments. Second, they worked with the students to understand how organisms are quantified.

“This is always an interesting topic because organisms aren’t individually visible to the naked eye,” Thibault says. “Third, we conducted an experiment to examine the resistance of bacterial cellulose to different chemicals alongside several traditional textiles, such as cotton, wool and polyester.”

To relay the science in an understandable way to students at different grade levels, Fairbourn says they ask the students a series of questions related to the project. After students have had time to consider each question and come up with answers, the responses are used to guide the students deeper into the material, he says.

“For example, we might ask, ‘How would you figure out how much cellulose is being produced by the bacterium?’ The students typically respond with something along the lines of ‘We should weigh it,’” says Fairbourn who, like Thibault, is a first-generation college student from Cheyenne. “This, of course, allows them to be the leaders of their own science while we simply provide the materials necessary to accomplish their suggestions.”

Nicholas, of Riverton, is a LAMP mentor for Fairbourn and Thibault. Nicholas will finish her dual master’s degree -- in botany, and environment and natural resources -- next spring.

“I provide instructional support for Logan and Natalie, helping them think about best teaching practices when developing their outreach activities,” she explains.

Communicating their science pushes Fairbourn, a Wyoming Research Scholar, and Thibault, a McNair Scholar, to become better researchers.

“Like any subject, disseminating your findings and communicating your position forces you to clarify it for yourself,” Thibault says. “I would say, however, the biggest benefit we reap from the experience is understanding what we do from different perspectives.

“We all have a unique way of processing information and recognizing patterns and, so, hearing from diverse groups of students allows us to access a limitless well of perspectives, many of which may differ from our current self-evident truths,” she continues. “In the end, we are forced to reconcile their insights with our own and hone our craft. In any case, it’s a joy for us to see the students become inspired by science.”

The group made previous stops at fifth-grade classrooms at Spring Creek Elementary School and Snowy Range Academy, both in Laramie, Watson says. The science lesson at those schools centered on how much material is needed to make a T-shirt and how long it takes for a T-shirt to disintegrate. As a result of those lessons, the fifth-graders at Spring Creek were inspired to make a small composter to determine how long it actually does take for a T-shirt to disintegrate.

The Science Roadshow idea began to germinate when LAMP collaborated with the Wyoming Department of Education for a three-day “Roadmap to STEM” conference in Gillette last summer. At the conference, Watson says she met with the 17 educators selected from around the state who submitted applications to partner with the Science Roadshow.

“I want to connect with educators across the state in a more meaningful way,” Watson says. “We are hopeful to change the paradigm of what it means to learn. It may sound grandiose, but that is what is needed.”

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