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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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National Lab Day: Connecting Teachers, Students, Scientists and Engineers

Eric Brunsell

Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh

Connecting your students with scientists and engineers is one way to enage them in science. It also provides students with mentors and positive role models. National Lab Day is a national inititive and classroom "matchmaker" launched last year to help facilitate these connections. A National Lab Day project can serve as a cornerstone to project-based learning in your classroom.

As you start the new school year, I hope the following interview with Samantha Israel, National Lab Day Coordinator, inspires you and your students to engage in an authentic science project. I would also like to extend a special thanks to NLD's Lew Esses, Abraham Faham, and Miro Sutton for their assistance with this interview.

 

EB: Why NLD (and what is it)?

SI: America is falling behind in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. NLD aims to reverse this downward trend and inspire students in order to increase general science-based literacy, as well as to stay competitive in the global market.

National Lab Day is more than just a day; it is a nationwide initiative to build local communities of support that will foster ongoing collaborations among volunteers, students, and educators. NLD does this primarily through our online platform (www.nationallabday.org) that connects teachers with STEM professionals, community volunteers, and a variety of other resources - all there to support and help teachers strengthen their STEM programs.

National Lab Day is not just about "labs" as we normally think of them - cookie cutter labs are a major part of the decline in STEM interest.  NLD promotes a hands-on learning approach to STEM learning.  It is about kids building robots and bridges and learning physics and engineering in those projects; kids testing the water in their schools and the local streams and learning chemistry and biology in the process. Real life application to STEM subjects is essential in stimulating interest.

We encourage teachers to consider hands-on learning projects for their classrooms, and to use our site to connect these projects with local professionals who would like work with them to see the projects come to fruition.

National Lab Day, the day itself, is a capstone day to celebrate the yearlong efforts and collaborations between students, teachers, STEM professionals and community volunteers - all supporting and pursuing fun hands-on learning. National Lab Day was celebrated this year on May 12th, 2010 (for pictures and video from the first annual NLD please see www.nationallabday.org). We will continue to celebrate NLD each year in May.

EB: How does NLD work?

SI: NLD is the ultimate educational matchmaker - think of it as the e-Harmony of STEM education. Teachers can post projects on our website (www.nationallabday.org) that they think would benefit from the help of a STEM professional or community volunteer. Our site will then automatically provide suggestions of local professionals or volunteers who have created accounts on NLD and may be able to help. Teachers can then message suggested "matches" in order to follow up and make an arrangement to work together.  Likewise, our system also presents STEM professionals and community volunteers with suggestions for projects they may be able to help with. They too can then message teachers responsible for projects they are interested in, and offer to assist.

Aside from using the automatically generated match suggestions that our system provides, teachers can manually search for their own matches by keyword, state, and location in the "community" tab at nationallabday.org/scientists. STEM professionals can also browse and search all projects in the "projects" tab at nationallabday.org/projects/live.

NLD also features an organization portal to further help teachers and projects. Organizations can post resources, host events, and adopt projects (to help galvanize activity and strengthen results). These organizations are provided with a customizable "MyNLD" page (including a unique co-branded URL) that allows them to showcase all of the work their organization has done to strengthen STEM learning. For a great example of an organization MyNLD page please visit http://my.nationallabday.org/OSLN.

Lastly, teachers can also request financial support for their projects on NLD. This is enabled by our partnership with Donors Choose

EB: What is the difference between the "NLD event" in May and what happens during the rest of the year?

SI: As mentioned above, the National Lab Day "Event" simply celebrates all of the work that is ongoing throughout the year, and it also encourages future involvement in our initiative.  However, at any time during the year a teacher can post and complete a project through our website.

EB: NLD has been in place for 7-8 months now, what would you say are some of your biggest successes?

SI: In the few months since President Obama launched NLD, thousands of teachers have joined the NLD community and have posted over 1,800 projects. More than 3,500 STEM-based professionals and volunteers have joined the NLD community to date. These individuals are ready to support teachers as well as students in their communities. For example, in the Fort Bend Independent School District 70,000+ students participated in National Lab Day. There are over 200 professional organizations, companies, and foundations that have joined the NLD effort, with a combined membership of over 6 million.

To view some of the press we have received please visit www.nationallabday.org/press

EB: What do you hope to see during the 2010-2011 school year?

SI: In the upcoming year, National Lab Day will build on our current success. We want to see the same activity we witnessed last year, but on a larger scale. Our goal is for NLD to continue to expand and become an everyday learning resource.  We will also be working on a series of improvements internally on our website to make it an increasingly useful tool for our users.

EB: One of Edutopia's "core concepts" is to promote project-based learning opportunities. How do you see NLD supporting this approach to teaching?

SI: Project-based learning is the heart of the NLD program. In the U.S., STEM education is very textbook-centric. This is problematic in that it can lead to significant disconnect between STEM subjects and real world application. Teachers often want to teach these subjects more dynamically, but many lack the tools or experience to do so.

There are numerous STEM professionals out there who are ready and willing to help spread their knowledge and expertise - all that is needed is a network. The core of the NLD program focuses on bringing together professionals that want to help teachers and serve as a resource that can strengthen their various STEM programs.

In April 2009, President Obama made a nationwide request to STEM professionals: "I want to persuade you to spend time in the classroom, talking and showing young people what it is that your work can mean, and what it means to you ... [to] encourage young people to be makers of things, not just consumers of things." NLD's primary goal is to meet the president's challenge.

EB: I heard that there was a goal of forging 10,000 scientist - teacher partnerships last year. Can you give a few examples of what some of these partnerships looked like?

SI: For every completed project on the NLD site, at least one scientist-teacher partnership was created. Each scientist-teacher partnership formed through NLD looked different, simply because the NLD program is designed to match the unique and specific needs of teachers and their classrooms.  For example, some of the partnerships were in the form of weekly phone calls to provide advice on science fair projects, while others were class visits to help teachers and students learn how to adapt solar energy in their classrooms.

Here is an expanded example of one particular partnership:

From the "Adopt a Class" project, the teacher writes:

"I posted my sophomore physics Alternative Energy Project on National Lab Day in the fall. I was contacted by a mechanical engineer, Mr. G., who lives in the area. He contributed to our project in several ways. He began by giving a presentation to our students about engineering as a career, which was great exposure for those interested in pursuing engineering. His presentation was extremely engaging for the students, and emphasized many different applications of engineering from bridges to energy efficiency to music video production. He left quite a few very helpful alternative energy books and engineering magazines in our library for the duration of the project which students used in their research. He met with student teams to check in about their research and help to identify areas to work on. He also collaborated with the students in an ongoing way on our class blog. Alternative energy is an area I'm just beginning to learn more about, so it was very helpful for all of us to have Mr. G. as a resource. The students presented their research all this week in class, and Mr. G attended all their presentations, gave feedback, and asked questions about their work. He then gave a presentation of his own for the class about energy efficiency and left us with resources we can use to make our school more energy efficient."

EB: Many current scientists and engineers cite the Apollo program as their inspiration for pursuing STEM careers.  What do you think will be the inspiration for the next generation?

SI: Inspiration is what is missing in the science classroom today. Our hope is that the STEM professionals who have been lucky enough to develop a passion for their subject area will become increasingly driven to share this enthusiasm with the next generation. Therefore we seek to encourage scientists and other STEM professionals everywhere to become the inspiration for future generations.

EB: How can one get involved in NLD?

SI: Getting involved is easy. Simply go to www.nationallabday.org and click "Join now!" you will be led through a quick sign-up process and have the option to choose your role (teacher, STEM professional, volunteer, etc).

Once an account has been created, users have full access to the site. Teachers are encouraged to post as my projects as they would like, and to use the NLD site to connect with local professionals and community volunteers. The site can also be used to find financial support. STEM professionals and volunteers are encouraged to browse current projects and find teachers looking for help. We encourage our users to actively use our platform, and take advantage of this powerful resource.

As a final note, throughout this interview I have differentiated between STEM professionals and community volunteers. The reason for this is that we encourage community members who do not necessarily feel confident referring to themselves as STEM professionals, but still have an interest in supporting STEM learning, to play a role in our initiative. Community volunteers can provide an extra set of hands on a fieldtrip, or help judge a science fair, and much more.

The bottom line: NLD encourages collaboration and excitement towards STEM learning - regardless of your role. If you want to help revive STEM subjects for future generations, join the movement!

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