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Inspiring Students and Teachers with Water Science

Ask scientists when they started loving science, and many of them will answer, “elementary school.”

With this knowledge in hand, University of Idaho Extension water educator Jim Ekins and Lakeland School District STEM coordinator Sarah Halsted set out to get north Idaho kids excited about science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

“What science is really about is curiosity,” Ekins says. “It’s really about coming up with a question, something that interests you. Maybe that interest comes from a need – we need clean water. Maybe it comes from a personal interest – ‘Hey, those bugs are really neat, I want to know more about them.’ ”

With support from the UI-Micron STEM Education Research Initiative, Ekins and Halsted launched a multi-part program to inspire kids to study science and help teachers develop science-pedagogy skills.

The project is one of the initiative’s second round of innovative programs designed to elevate STEM education by focusing on students, parents and schools.
The programs are part of a five-year project funded by a $1.2 million Micron Foundation gift.

The first leg of the project was the iSTEM From Excellence Program, a professional development summer institute for teachers in the Lakeland School District’s elementary schools. The teachers learned guided-inquiry methods that were designed to support Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core standards related to science Literacy. Halsted created a short film providing an overview of the program, available on Vimeo.

“To begin, teachers work with a place-based challenge, such as water quality, unified under the thematic arc of watersheds. This drives an investment in learning standards-driven content, such as phases of matter in the water cycle, mountain formation and the rock cycle, the interconnectedness of ecology with water in the watershed, and water chemistry,” Halsted says. “The content frames the investigative process so teachers and students better understand what leads to water quality being compromised.”

“Eventually teachers and students will come up with their own questions as they dive deeper into the research, and determine where they would like to focus their elaboration investigations.”

The teachers then applied their learning in an afterschool program for fourth-grade students. The program, “A Walk in the Watershed,” gave students hands-on experience with water science, geology, weather and more. It also gave teachers the yearlong practice in the less pressured afterschool environment, to increase confidence levels before guiding the lessons in the formal classroom environment.

Each school is near a body of water, so the students were able to conduct live experiments. Ekins taught about water quality and the macroinvertebrates that live in the water and feed the fish, adapting UI Extension’s IdaH2O Master Water Stewards curriculum for the students and teachers.

“We’re trying to get the kids exposed to real-time data so they can actually do their own hands-on inquiry,” Ekins says.

Ekins and Halsted also surveyed teachers, students and parents to learn the effects of the program. Their preliminary data show teachers reported an average 48-percent increase in their content knowledge, and parents strongly approved of the program, with 100 percent surveyed supporting iSTEM from Excellence and expansion to grades three to six.

Sixty-seven percent of the students reported an increase in their interest in science by the end of the year, and 33 percent reported an increased interest in their desire to pursue STEM professions.

Ekins and Halsted are now working with industry and government partners to expand the program and integrate hands-on science methods into Lakeland District’s classrooms.

“Overcoming barriers to STEM education involves a holistic approach that includes teachers, students, parents, community, and STEM professionals,” Halsted says. “We are excited to continue to develop this model on all levels and impact future opportunities for our Idaho students and families.”

Contact Us

Project Director

Physical Address:

Office: ED 508
University of Idaho
Phone: 208-885-7803

Project Co-Director