STEM Education: Classroom to Career

March 11, 2014

Connecting Classroom Experience to Real Life Application

As science educators, we are aware of STEM and the focus that has been placed on improving and integrating science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Recently, while doing some research, I read an article by Emma Harris in the February 24, 2014, edition of The Brown Daily Herald titled Researchers Urge Increased Environmental Science Education

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The article describes a paper, Revising the Economic Imperative for U.S. STEM Education, published on January 14 on PLOS Biology, written by Brian M. Donovan, Jonathan F. Osborne (Stanford Graduate School of Education), David Moreno Mateos (Centre D'Ecologie Fonctionnelle & Evolutive-CNRS, Montpellier, France), and Daniel J. Bisaccio (Department of Education, Brown University). The paper proposes that an increased environmental literacy may actually be driving the economic benefits of STEM education.

Donovan said the “argument for why we teach science ends up shaping what is taught to whom and for what purposes. If we’re going to motivate science curriculum instruction from an economic standpoint, then we need to develop curriculums and instruction that deal with our environmental problems in a substantial way.” Donovan further explains that in order to increase scientific opportunities to conduct authentic field work, educators need to integrate science and standard school instruction for the promotion of conservation and biodiversity. Co-author Dan Bisaccio adds that this approach is “learning science by doing science.”

An excellent example of this is found in Susan Bender from Jim Hill High School in Jackson, Mississippi. Susan is the recipient of the 2013 Jackson Public School Teacher of the Year award, and is referred to by her colleagues in the educational community as the teacher of “classroom forensic curriculum”.In February, 2014, 

Science Scene was invited to be a part of her Biology II SOAR (Student Oriented Academic Research) class, where students became forensic scientists for a couple of hours, learning and using the same techniques and tools that are used in real crime scene labs. The class was presented with a “mystery”—to find possible answers to the cause of Ludwig van Beethoven’s death. 

Susan provided the historical background of his life and death including his physical and medical issues.She shared with the class that, before and after Beethoven’s death, friends and visitors clipped locks of his hair, some of which have been preserved. Skull fragments from Beethoven’s corpse also exist from an exhumation in 1862. It is the hair and bone fragments that revealed a wealth of information—and evidence.

Susan Bender discusses staging of DNA profiles with her Biology II SOAR class at Jim Hill High School in Jackson, Mississippi.

The class was given DNA sequencing data relating to a hypothetical sequence from Beethoven’s parents, a DNA sequence from hair believed to belong to Beethoven, a DNA sequence from skull fragments of Beethoven, and a DNA sequence standard to ensure the test’s accuracy. By simulating the action of radioactive probes, the class looked for a specific sequence with the intent to determine if the hair and the skull fragments were from the same individual.

The second phase of forensic discovery performed a confirmatory test to determine the presence of lead in several simulated skull fragments, representing fragments collected during the 1862 exhumation. The simulated fragments had been embedded with a sodium hydroxide pellet to simulate lead so that, when tested with bromothymol blue, they would yield a definite blue color that would be an indication of lead. In this activity: the darker the color change equated to a greater concentration of lead.

This would fit the hypothesis that indicated toxic levels of lead being present in Beethoven’s body may have eventually contributed to his death. Historically noted, Beethoven’s drink of choice was usually a wine that had been sweetened with sugar of lead, or lead (II) acetate. Like other lead acetates, it has a sweet taste and was used as a sugar substitute throughout history—but not without serious consequences.

Susan has always taught by using a delivery system that is relevant and supportive of STEM/inquiry based learning. In this single class session, students were left with more than a surface level of exposure and a beginning understanding of why and how forensic chemists, crime lab and forensic technicians use old and new technology to provide answers and raise more questions when solving cases. 

Stephanie Miller

With over 25 years experience, Stephanie serves as a senior copywriter, social media director, and senior editor for Science Scene. Stephanie is always on the lookout for new educational and STEM-related opportunities and technology.