Science Programs Spark Students’ Interests

With the nation’s energy future at the top of today’s news, hands-on learning related to energy is opening the door to future energy careers for students touched by the College of Education (CED) and The Science House at NC State. Research on the best teaching methods for interactive experiments is the key to unlocking that door.

“This is a field where even one bright new scientist can have a tremendous impact on our energy future.”

Middle school students and teachers in eight districts, for example, test pistons and headlights, make radiators out of soda cans, and design solar-powered model cars. The work engages the students while teaching problem-solving and analytical skills, says Dr. Lisa Grable, the director of the CED’s Office of School Services. Grable and her colleagues studied economic forecasting data and information on biofuels projects to plan the curriculum and used the results of a statewide technology implementation project to choose classroom equipment. “These students are more motivated,” she says. “They’re still doing math and science work, but they’re using their own data instead of working out of a book.”

Grants from the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation and the UNC General Administration provide each student with a graphing calculator with sensors for collecting data and each teacher with a laptop computer loaded with analytical software. Teacher training for the project is conducted through a combination of site visits and
video-conferencing, allowing CED researchers to refine distance learning techniques. “We’re promoting student inquiry,” Grable says, convinced that it will impact
student achievement.

To prepare high school students for 21st century energy careers, The Science House in the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences launched the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Photonics Xplorers program five years ago. About two dozen ninth- and 10th-graders spend one week each summer on Centennial Campus and visit monthly during the school year to conduct experiments developed through staff research to learn about the properties of light, optics, and electromagnetism. “Students can relate to photonics since light is used in DVDs, lasers, cell phones, and telecommunications,” program director Pamela Gilchrist says. “These applications show how science disciplines merge to create new possibilities.”

Three years ago, the National Science Foundation funded the Photonics Leaders program, allowing The Science House to offer a more advanced program for 11th- and 12th-graders. The program provides more hands-on physics and research and mentoring opportunities with NC State faculty and scientists with companies like Cisco Systems and Verizon Business. Gilchrist says the time spent in the lab gives students a chance to explore science as a career option before heading to college. “This is a field,” she says, “where even one bright new scientist can have a tremendous impact on our energy future.”


Photonics Leaders director Pam Gilchrist checks the wiring of a studentís circuit board during a summer session of the hands-on program for 11th- and 12th-graders.