May 2021 | Classroom Commentary
The Value of Integrating Real-World Projects in Science
By Alisha M. Bailey
Career Day is often depicted as a one-day experience for students to get out of school and explore an interesting career choice. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a career is “the job or series of jobs that you do during your working life….” So, shouldn’t your students have more than just one day to explore a career? In my opinion, students should have the opportunity to explore careers or industries every day in the science classroom.
Educators and industry professionals know the importance of learning, both inside and outside the classroom. As an industry professional who transitioned back into the academic setting, I can attest to the importance that hands-on projects and activities play in learning and retaining information. Project-based or real-world projects can help to bring the classroom experience to life for students and open their eyes to the science industry.
A practical STEM perspective
Spending several years as an industry environmental scientist, combined with years of prior classroom teaching experience, I have a unique perspective in terms of the relevance of STEM knowledge and skills to careers involving science. I served several years as an Environmental Specialist in government, specifically in the area of public drinking water. Drinking water captures both traditional STEM disciplines as well as expansive non-traditional STEM additions. Understanding chemistry and chemical reactions is critical to understanding how drinking water is purified, and is highly applicable to the classroom.
Why is this important?
As scientific educators who are in the classroom with students each day or serve as curriculum writers, we are preparing the next generation of industry professionals. It is true that not all of your students want to be water chemists or scientific investigators, but information about this field can still help to drive their interest in other industries as well. For example, Do students understand how water impacts life? Do students know how water filtration works? Do students understand how or where water is stored until it is delivered to their homes’ faucets? Do students know what is in the storage tanks that ‘tower’ over their city?
Most of the time, drinking water that reaches your home comes from a public source, either ground or surface water. Groundwater is obtained by “drilling wells and pumping [the water] to the surface” and surface water is “collect[ed] in streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs.” 1 I often notice that people only seem to be concerned about water or water quality issues when there is no water coming from their own faucets or if there is a peculiar taste or odor problem. In my formal survey of water treatment operators, low water pressure and water discoloration are the two most commonly encountered customer complaints. These types of problems all ultimately add up to water chemistry issues.
Understanding water treatment and filtration processes can be a complex and detailed challenge, sometimes requiring many years of training—even for skilled science professionals. What if students could begin gaining an understanding of chemical practices as early as in grades K–12?
I believe that hands-on projects are the best way to get students involved in designing and learning real-world concepts. Some educators come into the chemistry classroom with experience as chemists, water technicians, or aquaculturists, and can bring a unique perspective into the teaching space. They are able to use industry experience to bring real-world, project-based learning into the classroom. Likewise, teachers without industry experience can also connect the real world in their classroom activities through many great education resources that are available. Some of my favorite projects for students that combine both chemistry and design are:
- Water Filtration: Designing a water filtration system gives students the opportunity to explore water chemistry, technology, and design on their own. Students could design or redesign a water filtration system and experience discovery in both a technical and practical sense. Students can research which chemicals would be necessary for water disinfection, quality adjustment, and filtration. Another learning opportunity could be to tour a local water treatment plant. Other great lessons and activities for K–12 classrooms include:
- AACT Lesson Plan: Now I Can Drink the Water (elementary)
- Teach Engineering: Make Your Own Water Filters (elementary)
- AACT Activity: Would You Drink it? (middle)
- AACT Activity: Distillation in Survival Mode (middle)
- TryEngineering: Filtration Investigation (middle & high)
- AACT Activity: Water Sustainability (middle & high)
- Building Water Towers: This project brings engineering design practices into the classroom. Students have the opportunity to use household items to serve as the legs of the water tower or storage container. Students will have the opportunity to experience how chemistry plays a role in the type of water tower that is built, the distance it takes to transfer water to each house or public facility, and how long is too long for water to sit motionless inside a tower. A favorite activity on this topic is:
- TryEngineering: Water Tower Challenge activity (middle & high)
- Aquaculture: Also known as “fish farming,” aquaculture accounts for more than 25% of all the fish consumed by humans. Internationally, the production of shellfish and finfish has more than doubled in recent years 2,3 with the use of aquaculture. The industry’s rapid growth could serve as a starting point to drive student interest in beginning an aquaculture project on the school campus. Aquaculture can help students understand which water quality parameters and chemical properties are necessary to keep the fish healthy and happy. PBS has a great collection of teaching resources surrounding Marine Fisheries and Aquaculture.
- In the TED Talk, The Importance of Sustainable Aquaculture in Our Future, Perry Raso talks about how his love of the ocean and aquatic life led to his studies of fisheries technology and aquaculture — and eventually, his advocacy for sustainable aquaculture worldwide. Student scholars can use this as a catalyst for their own scholarship and exploration of aquaculture in their community.
Creating field-based experiences
All of the projects listed above can be partnered with out-of-school field trips for students. Teachers can arrange for students to visit their local water treatment facility and speak to water treatment operators to learn how water in their community is treated, which chemicals are used for disinfection, what types of filters are used, and the filtration methods. Students can visit a water tower in their city with a local water distribution operator to discuss the impacts of water towers and how the water from the tower ultimately ends up in their homes. Teachers can arrange for their class to visit an aquaculture hatchery within the area to understand the business methods, water quality test procedures, and the crucial role that water chemistry plays in the safety and survival of the fish.
I encourage you to use real-world projects and activities that supplement your curriculum and engage the interest of your students. There are many opportunities for connecting with industry and real-world science, and it’s important to find topics that will engage and be relevant for the growth and development of the students in your classroom. I hope that you will connect with an industry professional in your community, learn from their expertise, and find an opportunity to transform their industry expertise into classroom relevance.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Drinking Water web page. https://www.cdc.gov/healthywat... (accessed Dec 7 2020).
- Mmochi, A.; Dubi, A.; Mamboya, F.; Mwandya, A. Effects of Fish Culture on Water Quality of an Integrated Mariculture Pond System. Western Indian Ocean Journal of Marine Science, 2002, 1(1), 53–63.
- Naylor, R., et al. (2000). Effect of aquaculture on world fish supplies. Nature, 2000, 405, 1017–24. http://doi.org/10.1038/3501650... (accessed Dec 7 2020).