STAR winner ignites passion for science in her classroom
“Zap! Zap! Zap!”
The sound effects made by the iPads sounded like those from a sci-fi gaming app, but the middle school kids huddled over their iPads at Zion Lutheran School weren’t playing games. They were doing science, using a NOVA app about the periodic table that their teacher, Mariann Brown, downloaded for them. The kids used the app to build elements by putting together the correct number of protons, neutrons, and electrons. If they added too many, particles shot off with a loud “zap.”
“By tomorrow, do fifteen of these,” Mariann told the class. “That’s your homework.”
As they left, the boys talked about choosing elements with the highest atomic numbers because these cause the most zapping when the program checks their work.
“That’s going to take a long time,” Mariann said.
“But it’s fun!” they replied.
She was surprised when, the next day, the boys came back having completed ten times the number of elements assigned. For the first time, Mariann had to tell her students to stop doing homework so that they could move on to something else.
She smiles. “That’s the joy of teaching, to me, to find something like that where they’re learning, excited, and engaged, and it makes them want to keep doing it.”
Mariann Brown discovered the NOVA app last June while attending the Siemen Teachers as Researchers (STAR) program. Participating in STAR helped her to find new ways to engage her students with hands-on learning while sharing a passion for science with the next generation.
Research at Siemens Teachers as Researchers
Mariann and twenty other applicants from a variety of middle and high schools around the country were selected for the STAR program after a rigorous selection process that included making a YouTube video, completing an application, and undergoing an interview. During the two-week program, they conducted research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee in order to bring real-life applications of science, engineering, technology, and mathematics back to their classrooms.
Mariann partnered with a high school physics teacher from Roscoe, Texas. They were assigned to the Fuel, Engines, and Emissions Research center to measure vehicles’ fuel emission and efficiency at certain speeds.
She also toured the other facilities and networked with teachers. During networking sessions, she learned about other research taking place at the program and new resources teachers used back in their classrooms.
Mariann said these connections were among the most valuable assets she gained from the experience.
“I don’t have a science department at my school that I can bounce ideas off of,” says Mariann, who is the only science teacher at Zion. “To have the other teachers offer ideas and resources was very helpful. Even since we’ve gotten back, we’ve been emailing each other with ideas and questions.”
Reigniting a Spark
The trip refreshed Mariann’s interest in science and engineering and inspired her to continue working to instill that passion in the next generation. She often tries to motivate children to pursue these fields by sharing her own work experiences at NASA and at the U.S. Geological Survey.
“The kids love listening to stories about the work that I did at NASA and the application of science and engineering, instead of just reading it in a book,” she says.
She left the USGS when she and her husband started a family, and she began teaching when her girls entered school.
“Of course [teaching] is very different from the engineering world, but it’s every bit as challenging. It’s kind of fun to try to instill that excitement about math and science and discovery in the fifth through eighth graders I work with. They’re just starting to really decide what they’re interested in. . . . I feel really strongly about trying to get them excited about science.”
Hands-on learning tools, Mariann believes, get students jazzed about science. With grant money from STAR, Mariann plans to purchase robotics materials to help students discover engineering outside their textbooks. She hopes the materials will engage them even more than the NOVA app about the periodic table.
Mariann also hopes to teach students that they don’t have to wear lab coats to be scientists or engineers. “I want them to know that they don’t need to be Albert Einstein or Madame Curie to go into science if they like it,” she said. “They picture the crazy scientist with the big test tubes boiling over. But I try to teach them about all the different career choices and different things they can do with science. They could one day design things that we can’t even think of right now.”
Or they could go on to become world-class scientists. “We’re going to have to have some very smart scientists and engineers to help us” address important world needs and issues in the future, Mariann predicts. And where else will those professionals come from but the classroom? Whatever her students do with their knowledge as they choose careers, Mariann hopes that they leave her classroom with a good understanding of—and perhaps a passion for—science.