Thursday, July 12, 2012

Oil Spill! Connecting STEM activities to real world problems

I recently had another opportunity to observe a science program in an after school setting, this time at Greenleaf Elementary School in Oakland, CA.  The rising fifth graders have an hour and a half of STEM programming after lunch every afternoon, and the day I visited they did an activity about cleaning up oil in the ocean.  They worked with trays filled a few inches with water, feathers, straws, cotton balls and sponges.

I think it's especially challenging to lead activities like this, where the materials you have to work with are analogies of what really happens in the real world.  I was impressed with the ways the facilitator drew connections between the activity they were doing and what happens in the real world.

The facilitator started the activity by asking the kids what they already knew about oil spills.  I was struck by how many hands went in the air, and details the kids knew including the catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

The group discussed what kinds of engineers help solve the environmental problems caused by oil spills - chemical and environmental engineers.

In groups, the kids examined their 'oceans' of water, with oil floating on top.  They discussed and wrote observations in their science notebooks.

The facilitator introduced some terms and definitions and then passed out materials the kids would use to try to clean up the oil.

As kids formulated their plans for working together to get the oil off the feathers and out of the 'ocean', the facilitator passed around photos of actual oil spills and the effects they have on wildlife.  Then it was time to work together to figure out how to use materials to clean up the oil.

During the discussion after the activity, the kids all said that they enjoyed this activity even though it was very difficult to get all the oil out of the water and off of the feathers.  

In order to help kids make connections between the science activities we do after school and science in the real world, here are some things we see quality programs doing:
  • Ask kids what they already know about related issues
  • Show kids pictures, news articles or videos
  • Introduce kids to a scientist who works on the problem in the field
  • Take a field trip
  • Participate in a citizen science project to help a scientist conduct a study on a related issue

Let us know some ways that your after school science program connects kids to real world science!

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