Sixth graders dip into chemistry

CMU students help Mount Pleasant middle schoolers learn STEM skills at the Chippewa River

| Author: Gary H. Piatek

"Yay! We have more time to have fun," said Cecilia Lossio, a sixth grader at Sacred Heart Academy in Mount Pleasant, as she and her classmates ran chemical tests to determine the quality of the water they had collected from the Chippewa River.

That's the reaction hoped for by her teacher, Wendy Lemke, and the Central Michigan University student and faculty helpers.

Lemke and her students are taking part in a regional water quality experiment devised by chemistry and biochemistry faculty member Dale LeCaptain and Jamie Curtis-Fisk, a Dow Chemical Company scientist. The project, initially funded by Dow Corning (now Dow Chemical), will be presented at this year's central regional meeting of the American Chemical Society, whose members have worked alongside CMU volunteers.

The goal is to get middle school teachers and students excited about chemistry.

The method is to supply teachers with lesson plans and Environmental Protection Agency-quality water testing kits to use with their students in real-life situations so they can see how their work could make a difference in their own communities.

"Projects like this — doing real, impactful chemistry — engages teachers and students. That starts changing the perceptions of teaching and learning chemistry," LeCaptain said, noting that studies have shown that middle school is the best time to shape those perceptions.

Wendy Lemke, sixth grade teacher at Sacred Heart Academy in Mount Pleasant, gives instructions to her students at the Chippewa River. Standing ready to assist are CMU earth and atmospheric science faculty member Megan Rohrssen and environmental science students Karly Root and Kyle Dymowski.

Gathering data to reap results

It works like this. Once classrooms opt in and receive their materials, the teams march off to a local water source. They can test it just to learn its chemical makeup or use their results to see if the water is suitable for a goal, such as planting trout. That's what Lemke's students were wondering about the Chippewa River.

To find out, the students carried the supplied backpacks full of water testing kits to the river and measured such things as the speed of the water, its pH, temperature and turbidity (cloudiness).

Back in their school's labs, the students tested the water samples for dissolved oxygen, existence of nitrates and phosphate, conductivity, and pH to determine what kind of fish or other animals that environment could support.

While Lemke's students' tests showed that the pH and oxygen levels were perfect for trout, the team discovered that the turbidity was too high and the riverbed was too sandy for brook trout to spawn there, Lemke said.

Environmental science major Alison Veresh (left) watches sixth grader Sami Stratton test Chippewa River water at Sacred Hearth Academy's lab.

Sharing the knowledge

The fun isn't over, however. The students will load their data onto an interactive map for all other participating middle schoolers in the Great Lakes Bay Region to compare with the results they found at their sites.

"As more schools enter their data points online, the more students can interact with each other by comparing results," LeCaptain said. "That creates a chemistry-linked fun competition and learning experience."

Once the map gets enough data points, he said, the information would become useful scientifically for spotting positive and negative trends.

He is confident the data map will continue to grow.

"This is exploding as a community outreach," he said.

The effort has already placed about 55 kits into area schools and community groups, and is expanding through the entire American Chemical Society's central region of Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, and parts of Indiana and Pennsylvania, he said. Plans are already underway to expand to the 2020 regional meeting in Columbus, Ohio.

Environmental science junior Karly Root from Kalamazoo, Michigan, helps some of the middle school students prepare to track the speed of the Chippewa River.

CMU students learn as they teach

One of the reasons the endeavor is growing, LeCaptain said, is through the enlistment of CMU students and faculty to help the middle schoolers collect and test the data. It allows the middle school teachers to expose their students to chemistry without having to have the knowledge themselves.

"This is more powerful than having me guide the students alone," Lemke said. "My kids loved working with the CMU students, who were excellent teachers."

It also was a great learning opportunity for the five CMU environmental science students who helped out at the river and in the labs.

Each remarked on how much they enjoyed working with the students and being able to use in real-life situations what they've learned in their classrooms.

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