Science is for real to these students Fourth-, fifth-graders work alongside firm's researchers


Two men in white coats hauled an assortment of flasks, beakers and droppers into Manchester Elementary School on Monday.

This was real science, and they were real researchers who do this for a living.

But Charles Pierce, who teaches a combination fourth- and fifth-grade class at Manchester, doesn't call in researchers to make career scientists out of his students.

"My overall goal is for the kids to be writing about this," said Pierce. "It will give them real things to be writing about."

Between now and May 2, students will come up with a project relating to bacteria. Some of them might choose to see what grows in a sample of raw milk. Others might monitor the pH -- the degree of acidity -- of a milk sample as it ages. Others might try a different medium for growing bacteria, such as fruit.

The scientists, Mark Sussman and Jay Sinha, will be back at least once. On May 2, the Manchester students will go to the scientists' labs at Becton Dickinson Microbiology Systems in Sparks, along with students from two Baltimore County schools also working with Sussman and Sinha.

The students will have a conference, in which they'll trade the results of their experiments, just as real scientists do. And they'll get to see a biomedical manufacturing plant that makes products such as the throat culture kits their pediatricians use to diagnose strep throat.

One catchword in science education these days is "authentic instruction," which means having children grow a real bacterial culture instead of just looking at a picture of one in a book. Another catchword is "inquiry science."

It's called inquiry science because the students start with their own questions, and can end up with just as many questions as answers. For example, Pierce wants them to choose their own questions to research for the May 2 meeting.

The conference is one of eight scheduled around the state this spring, all under the name of Kids' Inquiry Conference, and all founded by Pierce when he was working a few years ago with the Elementary Science Integration Project at University of Maryland Baltimore County.

The integration means that science isn't limited to science class. Students and teachers might start a project in science, improve their reading as they do research, develop their writing as they report what they learn, look into the social ramifications for social studies, and use it as inspiration for their art class.

"Science is everything that's going on around you," said Barbara Bourne, a director for the UMBC program. "Teachers are using science as a catalyst to get kids to read and write and do math."

For Pierce's students this week, it all starts in a Petri dish -- a shallow transparent dish used for the culture of micro-organisms. Sussman and Sinha came with a two-hour lesson to get Pierce's students started. Becton Dickinson has donated money and people to the UMBC project, a summer academy for teachers to learn to integrate more science into elementary school.

The students will use the Petri dishes filled with blood agar -- a Becton Dickinson product used by real scientists, too -- to see if ++ they have lactose-fermenting bacteria in their milk sample. When they visit the plant in Sparks, the children will get to see the "media line," the assembly line where the Petri dishes are filled with the agar-and-sheep's blood mixture used to grow bacterial samples.

Sussman has worked with several teacher in the region, and said Pierce is among the most competent in putting real science in front of his students.

"He's way ahead of the pack," said Sussman, who started out by volunteering himself and a co-worker to his daughter's school, Wellwood Elementary in Baltimore County, one of the schools that will join Manchester Elementary on May 2.

Pierce has done plenty of authentic instruction before. He and his students were involved in developing a nature center and outdoor classroom behind the school.

About five years ago, his class had the opportunity to identify and name a species of fly found in Venezuela by an entomologist, Marty A. Condon of Hofstra University. Pierce had invited the entomologist to bring her samples to the school, and she let the students look among them for any patterns.

The students detected a specific wing pattern, which led to isolating a species. They named it after Manchester, and it became Blepharoneura manchesteri.

Sinha, upon learning this on Monday, was impressed. As he packed up his equipment, he asked Pierce whether he might be interested in reciprocating. Sinha asked Pierce to be the guest speaker for an entomology association to which Sinha belongs.

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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