DSHA Science Department Gets Creative to Prioritize Hands-On Lab-Based Learning in Courses and Co-Curriculars During COVID-19 Hybrid Instruction

From the 2020-2021 school year Word Magazine, published in summer 2021. 
For senior class Valedictorian Madelyn Jessick, DSHA ’21, the sky is quite literally not the limit. She will begin her studies in aerospace engineering this fall at Purdue University, one of the leading institutions in the field. Jessick has dreams of working as a project lead at NASA or a space startup one day, specifically building the electrical systems of a rocket or space launch vehicle, and then training the accompanying astronauts on these systems. Her interest in space exploration and the workings of the universe began with her first look into a tele­scope as a fifth grader. While the moon craters she saw piqued her interest at the time, it is her STEM courses and opportunities at DSHA that have solidified her goals and prepared her to take on the next step in her education with confidence.
For Jessick, the field she will enter requires the ability to understand scientific concepts of the physical world and apply them via engineering to a machine. Thus, the hands-on nature of STEM-based learning in high school has been a vital part of her college-prep education. The lab work that accompanies science classes—from freshmen biology to AP (advanced placement) courses—is a necessary component to help students connect scientific concepts, the physical world, and the math applied to those concepts.
“When learning about inertia or the third law of motion, students have a basic understanding of these things on a physical level, but they need to apply the algebra and calculus they have learned to these concepts. We’re trying to relate the motion to math,” explains Jessick’s AP Physics teacher Katie Phillips. “We need to physically put what they see every day to this math, and without the motion happening in front of their eyes, the concepts alone are not as meaningful.”
This past fall Phillips, along with her colleagues in the DSHA Science Department, were faced with the task of prioritizing hands-on learning in the hybrid model, a challenge given most students were learning in person two days per week, and others were fully virtual. Faculty got creative—from at-home kits for freshmen biology labs, or assignments that students could do in their backyard or driveway for AP Physics.
“Mrs. Phillips did an amazing job with our labs,” Jessick shares. “We would do a lab when we were at school, and then when we were virtual (that same week) we would complete a corresponding lab online doing data analysis, or do even a lab at home taking measurements and applying the calculus.” Jessick shares that her AP Physics class completed around 15 labs over the course of the year—most a mix of virtual and in-person components.
A favorite at-home lab of Jessick’s was an experiment that took place in her backyard and was submitted for a grade via video. The submission shows her dad and brother holding up a sheet in their driveway while Jessick throws an egg and then analyzes the physical factors that impact the egg as it hits the sheet vs. throwing it at a hard wall. She knowingly explains the relationship between momentum, velocity, mass, and impulse in her lab scenario. She then wraps up her video by presenting the mathematic formula for impulse and its effect on the egg in the sheet vs. the hard wall scenario sharing, “Impulse equals the average force times the change in time, but when the egg hits the sheet it’s a softer surface (than the hard wall) so it increases the change in time and that decreases the force with which the egg hits the sheet and therefore there is not enough force to break the egg.”
The most impressive part of Jessick’s video is the confidence and understanding she has of the physics-based concepts and her clear ability to relate the “motion to the math” as Phillips emphasized.
“In some ways, the work we did this year was more realistic to the real world,” Jessick says. “Both in terms of practical things around us, but also preparing for how college classes will be. I’ve developed new strategies for solving problems that I might not have if it were a normal year. I think I’ve become more independent and definitely feel prepared for college.”
The emphasis on creative hands-on science was present at every level of academic instruction. Science Faculty Stacey Strandberg teaches freshman Accelerated Biology along with AP Biology. As she was preparing for her year, creativity and adaptations from her typical lab plans were prioritized with the goal of finding ways to keep students engaged. “I wasn’t going to be a teacher who only lectured in the hybrid format,” she says. “I spent the summer investigating hands-on labs and activities that I could get to kids who were learning remotely, but also make sense for students in who were in the classroom. I did a lot of research and in many ways, this year was an experi­ment in itself! Trying is always better.”
Strandberg explains that lab work is important because it allows students to see what goes well, and perhaps more importantly, what does not go as planned. “I think this is where students start to understand science. And it doesn’t become fun until you can actually do science,” she says. “This is where questions arise and understanding begins. Just because we were virtual, I wasn’t willing to transition the priority of understanding science to simply memorizing science.”
“The kits that Mrs. Strandberg created for freshmen biology stu­dents in particular were so impressive,” shares Academic Dean Heather Mansfield, PhD. “She was so creative and dedicated to keeping students engaged. This was especially important for our freshmen as they entered into high school-level science.”
Hands-on STEM opportunities extend beyond classroom work for students who choose. Jessick, for example, is a four-year member the Robotics Team and SMART (Students Modeling a Research Topic) Team, a co-curricular that offers students the opportunity to practice being a research scientist with the guidance of professionals in a particular field of study. SMART team is moderated by Strandberg, who leads students in a year-long project which typically culminates in presenting at the American Society for Biochemistry & Molecular Biology conference alongside of professional research scientists. Along the way, students participate in relevant lab research, complete demos with professionals, and build protein models in the area of study.
Due to COVID-19, students would not be working toward a con­ference presentation, so Strandberg adjusted her plan to ensure that students would still have something of significance to work toward and be accountable to. “Hands on is always better, and you don’t really understand data unless you are creating,” she says, noting this year required some changes given reduced access to lab work off campus, and the inability to travel to conferences for presenting the culmination of work. While the typical hands-on opportunities were not available, the goal did not change. SMART Team students chose a research project surrounding the coronavirus, and rather than doing in-lab work and building physical models of proteins, they reviewed and analyzed published research; built 3-D models of proteins with computer programs; and then created posters to present their findings.
“Students were able to develop a better understanding of what is real science and what is not real science; how to analyze what is good data and what is bad data,” Strandberg shares. “I wanted students to develop a confidence and control in their understanding of what they were analyzing.”
Jessick’s project was on myths surrounding the COVID-19 vac­cine and corresponding environmental racism. She also looked specifically at how the COVID-19 virus attaches to receptor cells in the human body. “This year was different, but I still feel like I got the whole experience. Mrs. Strandberg has been so helpful in ensuring a positive and collaborative year for us,” Jessick shares. “The work was relevant, and I feel equipped to understand what a trusted site for good scientific research is and what is not. I really felt connected to the work and our team.”
Since her freshman year, Jessick has also been developing her engineering skills as a member of the electrical sub-team for Hilltopper Robotics, consisting of students from both DSHA and MUHS. Each year, the team builds a robot to participate in competitions with other schools. This past year, the robot competed in a game where it had to pick up and shoot a ball into one of three holes in a wall, and then climb on a balance beam. “We had to think of the best possible solution in the shortest amount of time,” Jessick shares as she describes the fast-paced collaboration required of her team.
Robotics has not only been a skill-developer for Jessick, but perhaps more importantly, she has seen her confidence, passion, and leadership grow through the experience. Since her sophomore year, she has been the electrical team lead. This means she organizes and teaches other members how to wire the robot, power and control the motors, and deal with the pneumatics (pressurized air) within the machine. “When I think back to the beginning of freshman year, and I looked at the robot and the team leads, I never thought I could be leading something like this,” she says. “Robotics pushed me out of my shell as a freshman. The seniors were so motivating and inspiring and I felt like I had the room and freedom to grow and learn. The opportunities I have had, plus learning in an all-girls environment, have pushed me.”
In addition to her coursework and co-curricular opportunities rooted in STEM, Jessick also participated in the inaugural year of DSHA’s STEM Scholars program. This is yet another opportunity for young women to have real world and hands-on learning experiences alongside of professionals in a STEM-based field. The program is designed for motivated students like Jessick who are curious and willing to be highly engaged in STEM-based learning. The program emphasizes specific course work, hands-on research, and learning beyond the classroom. Due to COVID-19, the program was mostly virtual this year, yet Jessick found it quite motivating—particularly the opportunity to Zoom with a female NASA engineer who is working on the Mars Perseverance Rover mission.
Jessick describes the field of aerospace engineering as one in which the world says “girls aren’t supposed to be as good.” Yet she knows this is not true and she attributes her mindset to the STEM opportunities that she has experienced in an all-girls environment; opportunities that have not wavered in prioriti­zation through the challenges of hybrid learning. “DSHA has encouraged me into engineering,” she says. “My teachers and the whole experience is the reason I’ve been prompted to go for an aerospace engineering degree in a male-dominated field.”
Jessick shares that she is not just going for a degree or job in the field, rather she seeks to be her own person and leader in aerospace engineering—something she has been able to practice at DSHA. “My peers never judge me for wanting to be better or try hard in class, and my teachers have been my advo­cates. I’ve learned it is okay to struggle, okay to ask questions, okay to reach out when I need help,” she says, attributing this learning to the supportive and encouraging all-girls environment that encourages STEM opportunities for young women.
“Because of the confidence I have gained throughout my four years, I am ready to take the challenge head on,” she says. “Maybe someday I’ll get to come back to DSHA and present on my own mission to space.
HILLTOPPER ROBOTICS | Students from DSHA and MUHS build, program, and operate a robot to participate in competitions with other schools through the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) organization.
SMART TEAM | Students Modeling a Research Topic —works in hands-on research collaboration with the Medical College of Wisconsin and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
AMY| Aspiring Medical Youth students meet with local medical professionals to learn more about careers in the field
STEM SCHOLARS | New in the 2020-21 school year, this application-based program is designed for motivated and highly engaged students who show a dedicated academic and career interest in STEM. The program emphasizes specific course work, hands-on research, and projects, learning beyond the classroom, and follows the guidelines of the American Society for Engineering Education.
    • Madelyn Jessick, DSHA '21, competes on the Hilltopper Robotics team comprised of both DSHA and MUHS students.

    • DSHA AP Science Course Enrollment

    • Accelerated Biology Student Liv Jalowiec, DSHA ’24, models the structure of the coronavirus in Accelerated Biology. Students learning virtually completed the same lab kits from home.

    • Kate Krueger, DSHA ’24, works through a diffusion and osmosis lab. Students learning virtually completed the same lab kits from home.


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