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Students, teachers swap roles for a day ... for science!

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By Cheri Harris

CRYSTAL RIVER — When do playing with modeling clay and poker chips turn into a scientific exercise?

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When students are in charge of the lesson plans.

A group of 12 Marion County educators came to the Marine Science Station last week for a short retreat and in-service with a group of Academy of Environmental Science 11th-grade students serving as instructors.

The program included two engaging, low-budget activities that demonstrate scientific principles.

In one, participants used small pieces of clay to create the shapes they thought would fall the slowest in a column of fiberglass algae tubing filled with water.

Armed with a stopwatch, Tyler Petrucci timed each piece of clay the Marion County guests dropped into the water.

Chuck Mulligan, an AES science teacher who organized the in-service program, said it doesn’t take long to figure out the flatter pieces drop the slowest — or one that has been shaped so an air bubble is trapped inside. 

Dalea Magee, an AES student, said the exercise demonstrates phytoplankton that are flatter have access to more sunlight.

“The more surface area, the more photosynthesis there is,” she said.

At AES, Dalea said in addition to calculating the average sinking rate for each shape, Mulligan also assigned students to do basic lab reports.

“It was one of my favorite ones,” she said.

Mulligan said introducing lab reports to students can be “an interesting battle to start with,” but they quickly adapt to the new format, which they will see again in college science classes.

“I’ve learned so much more this year,” Dalea said. “I never really wrote a lab report until Mr. Mulligan.”

Tanya Goodwin, a science teacher at West Port High School in Ocala, said she thought the lab experiment was very valuable.

“We all learn from our experience in life,” she said. “When we experience it, we remember it.”

In another lively activity, teachers divided into teams to collect poker chips of different colors distributed in a grassy rectangle. 

“This is a fun one,” Mulligan said.

He explained that students start by enjoying it just as a game, and then in discussion later he relates it to competition for food.

After playing the game, teachers spent time discussing it with their AES student instructors.

Zach Cain said when he first played the game at AES, he didn’t know what it represented.

Then he asked the teachers what they thought cheating in the game represented.

Several answered, “Competition.”

Zach, in classic teacher style, said he thought it could also represent adaptations in nature. “That’s the way I looked at it.”

Sydney Bodden said when she played the poker chip game at school, members of her group got really involved.

“We had students digging in the ground, burying the poker chips,” she said.

Jacqua Ballas, program specialist for science for Marion County, said the teachers were able to come to the Marine Science Station for training thanks to grants from Southwest Florida Water Management District and ACA Construction to cover the cost of lodging, food and supplies.

She said the training and opportunity to meet in a relaxed setting were valuable because next school year they will be gearing up for state end-of-course exams in biology. 

Ballas said she was very impressed with the AES students and their ability to work with adults.

“They’re very inspiring,” she said. “I love this program.”

Alyssa Farrington, an AES student, said she enjoyed being one of the trainers.

“It’s not every day we get to teach teachers,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Tess Rivenbark said she was nervous at first about having teachers as students, but she had already had practice in leading groups of other students in workshops.

“That gave us more confidence and an idea of what we were going to be doing,” she said, “so then we just had to take it up a bit of a level.”

Chronicle reporter Cheri Harris can be reached at (352) 564-2926 or by email at charris@chronicleonline.com.