04-15-12: Partnership with research facility is boost for STEM education
04-15-12: Partnership with research facility is boost for STEM education

As early as next fall, students from kindergarten through high school may begin learning science, technology, engineering, and math skills at a nationally recognized research facility in the school district’s own backyard.

Plans are under way to act on a partnership agreement between the Puyallup School District and Washington State University (WSU) Puyallup Research and Extension Center.

The partnership calls for developing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning opportunities over the next two years on the WSU Puyallup campus.

“We want to provide all students with the highest quality curriculum and instruction in an effort to become a significant leader in Washington state STEM education,” said Superintendent Tony Apostle.

The Puyallup School Board unanimously approved a resolution last fall outlining a STEM partnership project between the district and the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center.

The resolution states in part that bolstering STEM education for students “will foster the conservation of natural resources, support and enhance social responsibility, address community and economic development, and follow environmental, social, and economic best practices.”

Plans are to offer the following learning opportunities

  • Organize junior high and high school STEM field visits to the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center and the surrounding area to provide hands-on activities that focus on solutions to environmental issues.
  • Provide kindergartners through sixth graders throughout the district with opportunities to explore STEM concepts with coordinated visits to Clarks Creek Watershed and other wetland areas in downtown Puyallup.
  • Encourage high school students to complete STEM internships with research center faculty and work toward adding ninth-grade job shadows and community service projects in future years.
  • Enroll interested high school seniors in a two-hour STEM course on the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center campus, with the possibility of expanding the class offering to other grades in future years. Students would have the potential to earn credits to fulfill high school math and science requirements.

“These will be very powerful learning opportunities for our K-12 students,” said John Parker, director of instructional leadership in the district.

Educators at the research center are also eager to see the plan come to fruition.

“We are very excited about working with the Puyallup School District and want to move the plans forward,” said John Stark, director of the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center. “This will be a wonderful opportunity for students to be exposed to WSU and the kind of teaching and research we have here.”

WSU professors and graduate students will also benefit, Stark said, by having opportunities to work with students interested in STEM research.

The 160-acre main campus off Pioneer Avenue is comprised of laboratories and offices, greenhouses, a Master Gardener demonstration garden, six acres of certified organic farmland, and several acres of agricultural and natural resource plots. Graduate students, post-doctorates, faculty, and staff from around the world are involved in research and instruction programs.

The research and extension center and the City of Puyallup recently received a grant from the Washington Department of Ecology to build a model stormwater management training, research, and education facility.

Building on past learning

Having the research and extension center and Clarks Creek Watershed within school district boundaries provides a natural environmental setting that has been the scene of many learning experiences over the years for Puyallup students.

Puyallup High Advanced Placement (AP) Environmental Science and Biology Natural Resources students, for example, have been doing hands-on science learning at Clarks Creek and a WSU wetland pond education site for nearly 10 years.

About five years ago, the school started inviting elementary classes to team with its Biology Natural Resources students to learn wetland ecology in the field, said Dave Wetzel, AP Environmental Science and Biology Natural Resources teacher.

Last month, a WSU microbiologist from the research center met with Wetzel’s classes at DeCoursey Pond to collect water samples for a study of fecal coliform.

A week earlier, Wetzel’s students released Coho salmon fry raised in a classroom tank into Clarks Creek.

Dressed in knee-high boots and waders, senior Katie Gabriel and junior Thomas Callanan walked into the shallow creek and submerged equipment that measured water quality while their classmates took notes from the creek bank.

Students compared their water readings with those taken from the classroom fish tank, as well as the conditions present when wild Coho were spawning in that same location last fall.

“Having a land lab to work on makes the classes I teach much more enjoyable and meaningful,” Wetzel said.

Similarly, students in some of the school district’s junior high school Field Investigations classes have visited Clarks Creek Watershed over the years to study water quality, erosion, bird species, and other environmental factors.

Many high school students currently receive credit toward graduation requirements by taking individual science, math, engineering, or technology courses offered at their schools.

The formalized partnership with the WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center will provide even greater hands-on experiences with a more integrated approach to science, technology, engineering, and math, Parker said.

“This, ultimately, is the focus of state and national STEM efforts,” he said.

In helping to coordinate the new partnership, Parker has worked closely with the school district’s Educational Opportunities Committee. The committee has spent the past three years looking at ways to create nontraditional learning opportunities such as this to keep students engaged in school.

High school STEM course

The district plans to offer a STEM high school course at the research center starting in fall 2013, Parker said.

Parker and his colleagues are working with WSU and the City of Puyallup to determine a feasible classroom space arrangement. Possibilities include using an existing WSU classroom space or a portable classroom that the school district would move onto the site, if permitted by the city.

Students would start or end their day at the research center, Parker said, and take the rest of their high school classes at their home schools (Emerald Ridge, Puyallup, Rogers, or Walker high schools).

Transportation to and from the class would be each student’s responsibility, Parker said.

The curriculum will focus on environmental science and be designed so that an average-achieving student who completes the work can find success academically, Parker said. The AP Environmental Science course will continue to be offered at the high school.

“While many would find the course interesting, this is one way to offer programs that appeal to students who want to pursue STEM-related careers after high school,” Parker said.

School Board President Greg Heath said he, too, looks forward to putting the local partnership into action.

“We have an absolutely world-class facility right here in our own backyard,” Heath said. “It’s just a privilege to partner with them.”