For Kenleigh Pubanz, watching — and feeling — science unfold changed the texture of the way she usually studies the subject.
“It was fun to build and create,” said Pubanz, a 9-year-old fourth-grader at East Elementary School. She also discussed the sand and blocks and other objects that she used for experiments in a series of hands-on learning sessions this past Friday.
Pubanz was among 80 fourth- and fifth-grade students from the Moffat County School District participating in the Exploring Physical Science STEM Workshop, run by the non-profit organization Science Discovery from the University of Colorado Boulder.
Colorado Northwestern Community College hosted the workshop on its Craig campus.
The workshop included sessions in mechanical engineering, biomechanics and exploring erosion, with each one allowing students to use concrete materials and scientific equipment to explore concepts they might be studying in their science classes.
Eric Carpenter, education designer with CU Science Discovery, said the sessions were designed to help teachers experiment with techniques, in small-group settings, that they might bring back to their classrooms.
“It’s an opportunity for (teachers) to see cutting-edge technology from CU Boulder, research from around the state and cool ways to teach it,” Carpenter said.
Some of the equipment the students used was quite sophisticated, and other materials — such as sand, water and blocks — were more easily obtainable. Carpenter roved through the room helping students to experiment, as teachers worked with the students in groups. At other times he addressed the students as a class, spurring them to make connections between concepts and the concrete materials they were manipulating.
“This little diagram right here explains a lot about erosion,” he said. “It has something to do with velocity of water and the size of the particle.”
Carpenter also said the students used some key mathematical equations, working with a process called LiDAR.
“LiDAR works by flying a plane over the watershed and measuring how long it took light to get from the plane to the ground and back,” Carpenter said, noting the way students made computations to discover ground elevation, among other things.
Students from Hayden School District Re. 1 were also present on Friday, and they too enjoyed the experimental change of pace from their regular classes.
“Here you can use electronic stuff to do experiments,” said Owen Miller, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Hayden Valley Elementary School.
Vera Turner, Gifted Education coordinator for the Moffat County School District, helped to organize the effort on the part of the district. She said classroom teachers selected students who had an “aptitude in problem-solving and an interest in science and math.”
One of the factors she said that makes the sessions work well is the small adult-to-student ratio.
“There’s one adult for five children,” she said. “That’s huge for something like this.”
That’s the sort arrangement that Turner said might be incorporated into a classroom with parent volunteers — along with some of the equipment and much of the process.
“This is very hands-on,” she said. “The answers aren’t supplied by the teachers, they aren’t supplied by the CU reps, and mistakes are welcome. They will show you where you went wrong, and what you can correct in the next experiment.”
Turner said the 80 students from the Moffat County School District were divided into 16 teams, with a district teacher working with each team. She said registration was $185 per team, “paid for with a combination of individual school funds and Gifted (Education) funds.”
Carpenter, too, stressed that teachers could bring back much of what they saw and use it in their own classrooms.
“I don’t necessarily recommend doing all of this, but you could certainly do something like this in a sandbox,” Carpenter said, explaining that even simple materials could replicate the spirit of discovery that he and other educators were trying to cultivate.