Tools for Schools: Putting the power of science into young hands
A group of boisterous adolescents in Okanogan County, Washington, quiets down as they peer into microscopes and begin to apply their new skills in DNA analysis to find a missing person.
The junior crime-scene investigators are learning to accurately place delicate samples on scientific instruments and attentively record and monitor experimental results. They are in pursuit of clues to a fictional scenario arranged by staff of the state corrections department.
Leading the young scientists is Carla McFadden, one of more than 500 K-12 teachers across the state who have received gel electrophoresis kits, microscopes, portable water analysis tools, model skeletons, and many other scientific instruments through the WSU School of Biological Sciences’ Equipment Loan Program (ELP).
Like McFadden, many of the teachers have taken special training to implement hands-on and inquiry-based learning techniques, but their schools, particularly in rural areas, often lack funds to purchase much of the needed laboratory equipment. Teachers who use ELP equipment overwhelmingly agree that both student achievement and interest in science subjects improve as a direct result.
“This is a great program, especially for small farming districts with over 50 percent of the student population on free or reduced lunch,” said Tamaran Underwood, a teacher at Nooksack Valley High School. “Our students have benefitted greatly.”
Meeting needs, powering possibilities
John “Skip” Paznokas, professor emeritus of biological sciences, founded ELP in 1992 to provide science teachers with equipment and supplies to carry out classroom experiments, demonstrations, and exercises they otherwise could not. The program has an inventory useful for biology, anatomy, physiology, chemistry, and environmental science.
More than 200,000 Washington students have benefited from the program which ships equipment to schools statewide free of charge.
“The WSU Equipment Loan Program creates this link between young students and WSU and they start thinking about bigger possibilities,” Paznokas said. “They start questioning what is it that happens at a university? What is research? As they are asking these kinds of questions, it just makes them think somewhat differently about what science is and what the possibilities are for them after they finish high school.”
Year after year, McFadden is impressed by her students’ efforts to perfect their micropipette techniques and perform other precise scientific work. She is gratified to see the pride they gain from achieving visible results, a particularly important benefit at the Okanogan County Juvenile Detention School where she teaches.
“Despite being accustomed to failure in written assessment, at-risk youth often excel at hands-on tasks; thus it is most important these youth have access to hands-on learning experiences,” McFadden said. “I have been able to furnish these hands-on science experiences only because of the WSU Equipment Loan Program.”
Opportunity to lend a helping hand
In a basement storeroom of Abelson Hall at WSU Pullman, Charlotte Omoto, current director of ELP, packed the ceramic cast of a Neanderthal skull into a box for shipping. The skull is part of a four-piece set illustrating the fossil history of man and was on its way to a Chewelah elementary school.
Recently retired as a professor of biological sciences, Omoto took leadership of the program in 2010 and now runs it with one part-time helper. She comes to campus once a week to fill equipment requests that teachers submit via an online form.
“I told myself I would stop running the program when I retired, but access to basic scientific equipment is a critical service for our kids, and I would like to see it continue,” she said. “I get lots of cards and letters from students and teachers all over the state commenting on how beneficial the program is.”
ELP originally was funded through grants from various agencies, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Dwight D. Eisenhower Professional Development Program, U.S. Department of Education, and Boeing Corporation. However, a lack of recent contributions threatens its future.
Donations are needed to cover shipping costs, new equipment, and a part-time or temporary employee to refurbish and update the loan kits and manage packaging. Gifts to the program can be made online. Please visit the ELP website for more information.