Learning Science in Many Ways

Students at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering in both 7th and 8th grade are starting the life science unit in their respective grade level science classes. The 7th graders will be focusing on cells, human body systems, growth, and reproduction. The 8th graders are focusing on reproduction, genetics, heredity, and adaptation. How could all these topics possibly relate to our aerospace and engineering theme? In the curriculum for both grades, I have tied these topics to aerospace by focusing on how the aerospace environment will affect life functions. In 8th grade, for example, we are about to start a week-long look at how reproduction could be affected by the environment of space, such as in the International Space Station. This is a vitally important issue if humans are to colonize space someday, and our students are examining this and other similar issues.

However, before we can start to look at the effects of the aerospace environment on a  life function, we have to learn about the life function itself first. Therefore, the 8th graders have beens studying reproduction for the past couple weeks. We started with an overview of what reproduction was, and how all organisms use either asexual or sexual reproduction to procreate. The student crews (groups of 4 students) each researched a different example, then presented their findings in class. We learned how bacteria, garlic, oak trees, sea sponges, salmon, and mice reproduce–and they were all different! Then we did a lab where we made a yeast culture (sugar water and baker’s yeast) one day, then examined the yeast cells asexually reproducing under a microscope the next day. This lab was very illuminating, as students could see the cells budding and dividing. Next, we held a debate where half the class had to research and defend why sexual reproduction was better, while the other half defended asexual reproduction. The students understood that both methods had pros and cons, but the debate made them really dig for the facts needed to support each position. Finally, to assess their knowledge, I had the students write a one- to two-page comparative essay on sexual vs. asexual reproduction in class, but with access to their notes.

Here are some photos of yeast cells that the students took with their phones through the microscope’s eye piece at low and high magnification:

Yeast cells at low magnification (40X) – all you can see is masses of cells and air bubbles.
Yeast cells at high magnification (400X) — now individual cells are clearly visible, including cells that are budding and dividing.

So what did the students think of this lab? The consensus was that they loved looking at the yeast cells firsthand and seeing asexual reproduction in real time, something they had generally been unaware of before we studied it. By using all these different ways to study reproduction, the students have gained a fairly deep understanding of the basic concept that organisms reproduce in different ways, and each way has advantages and disadvantages. Now as engineers, we will look at how to emphasize the advantages and mitigate the disadvantages for any organism, such as humans, that needs to live and work in space.

Author: Bryan Holmes, Physics & Math Teacher, STEM Competition Mentor

Starting at Thomaston High School in Thomaston, Connecticut, in fall of 2018.

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