Making Life Science Connections at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering

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Cheek Cell of Academy Student (photo by student using iPhone through microscope)
Student’s Cheek Cell (photo by student using smartphone camera through microscope)

How can you connect cell biology to a middle school STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) academy that focuses on aerospace and engineering? That was my challenge as I planned the curriculum for the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering at John Wallace Middle School. A typical aerospace science curriculum has some physiology in it, but not cell biology. However, the middle school science curriculum I have to cover has three major units in physical science, life science, and earth science. The life science unit for 7th grade includes basic cell biology and human body systems. The challenge was to integrate these topics into the aerospace theme of the academy.

My approach with each of the three science units is to lay out a converging path between the science topics and related aerospace topics. For this unit, life science, I have started the science lessons with cell biology. This will soon progress to how cells form tissue, then organs, then systems, such as the digestive and respiratory systems. On the aerospace side, I started with the aerospace environment, beginning with the atmosphere and meteorology, then weather hazards to aviation, then progressing to space weather and hazards to space travel. When these topics are covered, about halfway into the unit, then the science and aerospace courses will converge, as we will examine how the human body systems are affected by the aerospace environment. We will look at the physiology of flight and of space. The main focus will be on the low pressure environment of the upper atmosphere and the vacuum of space. At the same time, we have used the cross-cutting concept of systems and systems models by connecting back to our previous unit with aircraft systems as we will look at life support systems for both aircraft and spacecraft. Throughout the unit, I have repeatedly given the students an overview on where we are going so they understand the convergence of topics.

At the same time, we continue to follow practice of scientific inquiry and the adept use of technology. In all of the labs, students formed their own questions, set up their own experiments, and drew their own conclusions. For technology, we learned how to use microscopes. As I do with all equipment, this started with a homework assignment to read the microscope operation manual. Then we had a basic lesson on how to use it where the students could look at various objects. We discussed and practiced how to record observations from a microscope. Then we progressed to looking at cells. The culminating lesson was a cheek cell lab where students made and stained a slide of their own cheek cells, then compared those cells to some other cells they had observed. I emphasized safe lab procedures and proper care of equipment throughout. Therefore, while cell biology did not seem to fit with the aerospace and engineering theme of our academy, the lessons blended well with the rest of the curriculum by following this approach.

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