New STEM lab encourages middle school students to experiment

Photo by Sue Suchyta Experimenting in the new STEM lab at O. W. Best Middle School in Dearborn Heights are 11-year-olds Conner Wenzel (left), and Anthony Cabej of Dearborn Heights, Masie Fujita and Sukayna Alnakash of Dearborn, and Sydney Roney of Detroit.

Photo by Sue Suchyta
Experimenting in the new STEM lab at O. W. Best Middle School in Dearborn Heights are 11-year-olds Conner Wenzel (left), and Anthony Cabej of Dearborn Heights, Masie Fujita and Sukayna Alnakash of Dearborn, and Sydney Roney of Detroit.

Times-Herald Newspapers

HEIGHTS – Upgraded technology and a newly equipped laboratory at O.W. Best Middle School, at 22201 Powers in Dearborn Heights School District 7, will help students learn through hands-on experimentation as they solve real-world problems.

Assistant principal Claudia Portscheller said the lab allows students to do experiments and apply what they learn to real world situations.

“In our STEM lab we can create,” Portscheller said. “We have the room, the technology to create more real-world situations using technology, engineering tasks, and incorporating math into our science program.”

STEM, the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, describe the programs schools offer to become more competitive in technology education.

Students learn to work and solve problems in groups while experimenting in the lab, Portscheller said.

She said the lab also lets teachers combine STEM disciplines to help children understand the importance of science.

Portscheller said staff visited other schools when planning the school’s STEM lab, and aligned Best’s program with the Michigan Science Standards, the Next Generation Science Standards, and Common Core State Standards.

Traditionally, MSS defined grade level content expectations. NGSS set expectations to prepare students to learn well in school and prepare for future workforce needs by setting K through 12 science standards to include both content and practice, combine different disciplines, and compare favorably to successful science education benchmarks worldwide.

CCSS are standards adopted by the State Board of Education for K through 12 mathematics and English language arts.

Portscheller said the first lab is close enough to completion to let them start using it with students. They hope to complete a second lab by the end of next year.

The school received $500,000 for STEM lab funding. The lab materials came from the school budget. The district contributed to the development of the STEM labs, and Building and Site Fund administrators — a coalition of district and community leaders, who must use the annual fund to help students — recently chose to support the STEM lab development for two years.

Sixth-grade science teacher Victor McGuire said the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade science teachers will sign up for times to use the lab with their students. He said the dedicated lab has materials and equipment stored in one area, not spread throughout the science classrooms, and has technology unavailable in traditional classrooms.

“We have opportunities to do more things because we have the material available to us,” McGuire said, “and the technology available to show the kids from the screen on the computer right to the tables and perform that experiment that we used to tell about or talk about.”

Sixth-grade science teacher Shellie Koski said the first experiment they are doing with students is with carbon dioxide gas to demonstrate the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, without which the planet would become much colder.

Koski said students mix vinegar and baking soda in a flask with a stopper, and carbon dioxide escapes through a straw in the stopper and inflates a balloon on the end of the straw.

Other experiments teach the scientific method, a process or series of steps scientists take to obtain, test and describe the natural world, using observation, hypothesis, and testing and steps needed to prove or disprove a hypothesis.

Portscheller said they hope to use the lab space for after school activities, and plan to launch a robotics club.

“It’s nice to have the kids with more space,” Koski said. “They can be engaged, they can do things in here that we can’t really do in our classroom – doing something rather than just sitting and listening to us – doing it themselves. We are excited to do some science and actually have kids experience it.”

Sixth-grader Sydney Roney, 11, of Detroit said she has a lot more fun doing an experiment herself than just reading about it.

“When you read it you don’t know how it looks or how it feels,” Roney said.

Sixth-grader Sukayna Alnakash, 11, of Dearborn agrees. She said she is looking forward to doing more experiments in science class.

“I feel like a scientist, and it is more fun than just reading about it because you get a hand-on experience about what you are learning,” Alnakash said. “So then you know about what is really actually happening.”

Sixth-grader Masie Fujita, 11, of Dearborn is glad they do not have to use their classroom for experiment space, where they worry about making a mess on the desks.

“I want to come into the lab more often and do more experiments,” Fujita said. “It is a lot bigger and roomier in here and you have more room to do your experiments. When you are learning it you can observe it and see how it smells, how it looks, and you can see step by step and not try and figure out what it is like in a text book.”

Sixth-grader Anthony Cabej, 11, of Dearborn Heights said he was surprised to see that a recent hands-on experiment did not turn out the way he thought it would. He said he remembers more when he actually does an experiment instead of just reading about it.

Sixth-grader Conner Wentzel, 11, of Dearborn Heights said hearing a description of an experiment puts a different image in his head than actually doing it does.

“I want to spend more time in (the lab) because it is fun,” Wentzel said, “and I want to do a lot of experiments where we can learn something and use the scientific method.”