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MSTE Partnership Fostering Learning by Doing

by Tom Hanlon / Jan 18, 2022

Hands-on learning

The Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education (MSTE) is partnering with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to create hands-on science curricular units for middle schoolers.

When Jana Sebestik asked me if I knew where electricity came from, I pondered a moment before answering “Light switches?”

Yes, I was kidding. For the most part.

If I had taken the unit that Sebestik, assistant director of the Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education (MSTE), developed for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, I would have been able to respond with greater accuracy and surety.

Sebestik wrote the curriculum for “How Does a Bulb Light?,” a unit for middle schoolers that is one of several science units resulting from a partnership between the Illinois EPA and MSTE.

“The whole system of electricity production and delivery is everywhere—and ignored,” says Sebestik. “Most people don’t know where electricity comes from.”

It’s entirely possible she was just trying to make me feel better. 

Hands-on Learning

Students in the “How Does a Bulb Light?” unit will certainly know how electricity is generated. They will learn about different energy sources, their impact on the environment, and how to use energy more efficiently.

How they learn is most critical, Sebestik says.

“Too much of school is just sitting there,” she explains. “We tried to get as many questions in the minds of kids as possible.” Questions, she adds, that are explored through doing.

“The units follow the Next Generation Science Standards storyline model, where kids generate questions and are guided in exploring those questions,” Sebestik notes.

In the unit, students take apart and build small-scale models, relating them to larger scales. For example, students take apart solar pathway lights, whose batteries are charged by the sun so the lights can shine at night. “They see how the lights work and think about storage and production,” she says. “In another activity, kids turn hand-crank generators to cause a magnet to turn inside a coil to produce electricity. They see when they turn it faster, the light is brighter, and when they turn it slower, it gets dim or goes out.” Students also experiment with hydropower, she adds.

“One of the great strengths of Jana’s modules is they are teacher-friendly and student-centered in that they are hands-on. Students are doing something all the time,” says MSTE Director George Reese. “They’re teacher-friendly in that you can get to the activities very quickly, and the modules use the power of visualization through web interfaces.”

That power of visualization was greatly aided by the work of Michael McKelvey, coordinator of engagement technology & new media for MSTE, and Christina Tran, MSTE graphic designer. The two are part of the team that created the “How Does a Bulb Light?” unit.

Other Science Units

MSTE has developed two other units for the Illinois EPA: “Where Does My Food Go?,” which focuses on food waste reduction, landfill diversion, and solutions to resulting environmental issues, and “Why is the Pond Green?,” in which students investigate algal blooms and their environmental impact, both positive and negative.

The units are flexible and can be used in classrooms, for after-school clubs and events, in camps, and for home schoolers. “It could fit into, say, a six-week curriculum,” Sebestik says.

Helping Us in the Future

The electricity unit, she says, is divided into four parts: production, delivery, what consumers can do, and what the future looks like. Unit kits with supplies will be available through the state library system.

“We need to get to where we can generate electricity without producing carbon, without doing any more damage,” Sebestik says. “By having kids make electric models and electric cars, they can start to think about how these models can help us in the future.”