Hands-on experiences guide St. Mary’s science students

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Maria Bienvenu observes hydrogen’s visible spectrum through a spectroscope, one of several pieces of new equipment recently added to the St. Mary’s chemistry lab. Dr. Mark Ward, a math and chemistry teacher, believes giving students opportunities to experience the subject through hands-on and inquiry-based learning is essential to the success of the students.

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Ben Franklin

By Jeannie Petrus

Ask any student and he/she will tell you that the easiest way to learn is by doing or becoming involved. That’s why the recent acquisition of new equipment in the biology and chemistry labs at St. Mary’s Catholic School is so important to the success of the students.

“Teaching quantum theory is essential, but students experience the subject by hands-on and inquiry-based learning,” said Dr. Mark Ward, a math and science teacher at St. Mary’s School. “Unlike a video that may show the experiment, St. Mary’s students can put their hands on the equipment, learn techniques of accurate and precise measurement, and pose questions about how well the theory was supported by their data.” He added, “The whole experience of watching students learn in the laboratory is fun to watch, and certainly a satisfying experience for them. Application is key, and that is made possible by having an organized laboratory.”

Some of the new equipment that has been recently added to the chemistry lab includes volumetric glassware, vacuum filtration systems, wireless spectrometers and fluorometers, electronic analytical balances, and gas discharge tubes. Dr. Ward said the new equipment gives the students more responsibility and buy-in with their experiments.

“Take, for instance, the spectrometer measurements on colored solutions of aqueous ions,” said Dr. Ward. “While we have always used the older, standard methods to measure solution amounts of ions, the new equipment allows importing data directly to computer where ion concentrations are statistically analyzed, stored or printed. Students can compare the standard method with the state-of-the-art method and feel the improvement in time and efficiency.”

Dr. Ward has an M.S. and Ph.D. in Chemistry, taught at the Louisiana School for Math, Art and Sciences in Natchitoches, and has 25 years of experience in oil and gas chemical research and development. He teaches Advanced Math and Algebra II, Chemistry and Honors Physics. He also teaches Chemistry Dual Enrollment through Northwestern State University, which means the students he teaches in his Chemistry DE lecture and lab classes earn college credit as well.

“It is especially beneficial to students in the Dual Enrollment program to be exposed to the newest technology since the lab course is earning the student college credit,” he said. Some other pieces of equipment that Dr. Ward recently added to the lab are portable sensors and probes. “The students use these instruments for environmental engineering field work,” said Dr. Ward. “I believe it is important to get the students outside into the environment as an extension of the chemistry lab. The sensors and probes are handy and can be compared to lab measurements when samples from the field are taken and brought to our labs. Field work is a great hands-on learning experience.”

Jake Messenger, at 10th grade student at St. Mary’s Catholic School, utilizes one of the 10 new microscopes that were recently added to the St. Mary’s Biology Lab. The 10 new microscopes and new biology research materials are part of an on-going project to keep the science lab equipment updated. Mrs. Carol Garcia-Rachal, who teaches Biology I & II, Honors Biology, Human Anatomy and Physiology, and Chemistry I & II, said the new microscopes will provide the students with the latest hands-on technology while engaging in biology lab research and experiments.

In the biology lab, ten new state-of-art microscopes were recently added. The 10 new microscopes and new biology research materials are part of an on-going project to keep the science lab equipment updated. Carol Garcia-Rachal, who teaches Biology I & II, Honors Human Anatomy and Physiology, Honors Chemistry and Chemistry I & II, said the new microscopes will provide the students with the latest hands-on technology while engaging in biology lab research and experiments.

Garcia-Rachal has an undergraduate degree in biology and a master’s degree in education and 47 years of teaching experience. Even in the elementary grades, student involvement in science concepts are encouraged. Just recently, Chrissie York’s first grade class engaged in a STEM project involving an apple. The students utilized science and math concepts to measure the weight, density, and circumference of the apple and engineering concepts to create a sturdy “apple transporter” on their heads.

Mackenzie Parker uses a scale and some bear counters to measure the weight of her apple during Mrs. Chrissie York’s first grade STEM project involving an apple. The students utilized science and math concepts to measure the weight, density, and circumference of the apple and engineering concepts to create a sturdy “apple transporter” on their heads. Peyton Vascocu and Aubree Rachal were the winners in the class who successfully engineered an apple transporter that remained intact while racing from point A to point B.

The students tested their engineering design outside where they ran from point A to point B to see if their design would stay intact. Two students were successful in this engineering challenge. “Even at this young age, the students are more likely to understand basic math and science concepts if it involves an activity,” said Mrs. York. “The project concluded with a discussion about what made the difference in the two successes of the challenge.” Andrea Harrell, principal at St. Mary’s School, said she believes in hands-on learning in all the grades and all curricula and believes the new equipment will enhance learning in the labs. “In the end, it’s the students who benefit from this,” she said.

For more information about St. Mary’s and its science curriculum, contact Christy Griffin, admissions counselor, at 318-352-8394.