Local News

Saturday, Dec 01 2012 02:00 PM

High-tech labs help students learn science at their own pace

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Dalton Dador, left, and Isaac Gonzalez watch their computer monitor during an electricity exercise in the Fairfax Middle School science lab.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Fairfax Middle School students work in modules during science lab where they use a computer to guide them through their projects step-by-step.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Fairfax Middle School eighth-grader Samantha Carter carefully pours corn syrup into a measuring spoon for her alternative energy project in science lab.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Corn syrup is added to test tubes during this science lab project on alternative energy at Fairfax Middle School.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

In some ways, the high-tech science lab at Fairfax Middle School isn't much different from other labs.

There are test tubes and lab coats and various concoctions being mixed together.

But it's not the teacher who is guiding the experiments. It's a step-by-step video on a computer at a cubicle.

Pairs of lab partners watch educational videos and play related video games, then engage in hands-on activities before rotating to the next station.

Each station -- or module -- has a theme such as physics or astronomy, and students spend about two weeks at each one conducting experiments to reinforce what they've learned.

At the food science module, they beat egg whites mixed with sugar. At the solar power module, they use solar to cook hot dogs. At the rocket science module, they build rockets out of tubes and plastic bottles.

Teacher Jennifer Redstone strolls around the room occasionally nudging students who don't appear to be on task, but for the most part their work is self-directed.

And that, according to lab creator Pitsco Education, is the point.

"It gives the students the ability to work at their own pace, but they are in a collaborative environment with a partner so they have someone to bounce ideas off of," said Pitsco Director of Education Matt Frankenbery.

If students don't understand something, they can back up the video and repeat it as often as they need to. If that doesn't work, the teacher is always there to answer questions.

Redstone couldn't be more pleased.

"It's amazing, just the technology and the equipment these kids are exposed to," she said. "We have stuff here that even high schools don't have."

A federal grant paid for most of the $120,000 lab, which opened this school year. Standard Middle School in Oildale is in its second year using a similar system for seventh- and eighth-grade engineering and robotics classes. At Elk Hills School, it's used to teach algebra.

"Our kids love it," said Standard teacher Rita Gonzalez. "It introduces them to what engineering is and what engineers do, and they get a chance to build models."

Pitsco Education Founder and CEO Harvey Dean came up with the system because he was nearly kicked out of seventh grade for being too fidgety. He wanted students nationwide to have access to hands-on learning activities and a standard, consistent curriculum.

At Fairfax, all 250 of the school's eighth-graders go to the science lab about every other day and spend the remaining time in the classroom.

Dalton Dador, 13, likes the diversity the virtual curriculum affords.

"Every two weeks, you get to switch to something else, so you get different topics," he said.

On Thursday, 13-year-old Aaron Tarango was mixing yeast and corn syrup to create gases that inflated a balloon.

"I like doing the projects," he said. "It's interesting. You learn something cool every day."

His lab partner, Samantha Carter, wrinkled her nose when asked what she thought of the system.

"It's kind of messy," she said, delicately balancing a recently filled test tube. "And sometimes it's a bit overwhelming, with all the technology."

Both Gonzalez and Redstone said the high-tech learning modules are having an impact on their students, many of whom might not otherwise have considered careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

"I'm hoping it sparks interest for later on in life," Redstone said.

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