Science educator Todd Witt, a doctoral student in education, created a science curriculum that fits into a backpack and can be easily transported to schools.
Give science educator Todd Witt three days, and he is confident he can improve a school's test scores.
Witt's classroom is a little out of the way – it's outside at an education camp called Sky Ranch in Van – and he's not big into lectures or pop quizzes. He works with fifth-graders from throughout the state, supplementing their in-class science education.
"We'll cover about 90 percent of their science content in those three days," Witt said.
So far it's worked. Studies have shown his camp has a profound impact on state test scores, with one school's pass rate for the state science test up 28 percent. He attributes that success largely to the experiential learning techniques at Sky Ranch – students are getting their hands dirty doing science, in the process getting a better grasp on it than they had before learning in a classroom.
Witt, a doctoral student in Texas Tech University's Global Pragmatic Researchers in Science Education (PRiSE) program, took his philosophy of outdoor education on the road – to India, specifically. There, a collaborative effort between his camp, his brother's church and an education trust in India brought science classes to schools.
The combination of science education and global outreach, about which Witt is passionate, led him to Texas Tech's online program, which allows him to work full-time somewhere outside of Lubbock and earn a doctorate in education. He joins dozens of students from throughout the country who are changing science education nationwide. His form of education is what he calls informal science.
"Todd brings together a wealth of scientific knowledge and a knack for organization and teaching to engage large groups of students in exciting science activities," said Walter Smith, a professor in the College of Education who works with the Global PRiSE program. "If the directions for an activity call for students to work on a desktop, he figures out a way to enlarge it to a 30-foot screen to help students feel and visualize the impact of the science concept they are studying. He organizes the activity so a few hundred youngsters can cycle through a half dozen major activities in a day.
"Todd has a vision he is carrying out for informal science organizations to bring students together on the Internet to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering problem-solving."
Science in a bag
Witt has taught outdoor science education for years, but his students have always come to him. He got the idea to take the science to them while talking with his brother, a pastor at Grace Community Church in Lindale. He partnered with Fisherman Trust, an Indian organization that wanted to put together an outdoor education camp. The director of this camp came to a conference at Sky Ranch, learned what Witt was doing and wanted to include it in his camp in India.
Witt already had a science curriculum using ideas from Project WET, or Water Education for Teachers, to demonstrate to Texas students the complicated and critical water situation in the state. India is facing a similar water crisis; it has plenty of water but most of it has been polluted and is unusable.
However, presenting this education in India is a little different than in East Texas. As nontraditional as science classes in outdoor education camps are, they still follow the pattern of the students coming to the classroom. In this case, Witt needed to bring the science camp to the students. Additionally, it needed to be inexpensive to reproduce, able to teach 20 students or 100 and transportable via motorcycle.
Enter the backpack.
Witt, members of Grace Community Church and representatives from Fisherman Trust looked at the Project WET ideas and figured out what needed to be tweaked to make the activities work. Witt's staff at Sky Ranch laminated instruction sheets and game boards, bought a few dozen grease pencils and packed each game into plastic zipper bags, then packed those bags into a backpack. Each bag had supplies to teach 20 students, although it could teach more if needed.
The supplies included a water bottle, blow-up globe, colored ribbon and wooden dice. Although his collaboration paid for the half-dozen backpacks that went to India, an educator could easily replicate the bag.
"They don't have a lot of money, so they needed activities that could be very inexpensive," he said.
What's in the bag?
• Blue Planet: Students throw around an inflatable globe, stopping with each person to see whether his or her thumbs are on land and water. The point is to highlight how much of the world is covered with water. Then they use a water bottle to represent how much water is in the world, then take out the seawater, then take out what's not accessible, like the ice caps, and the water bottle goes from almost full to a drop from an eyedropper.
• Incredible Journey: Three students (two hydrogen, one oxygen) link arms and travel from one water source to another. At each place – lake, river, glacier, cloud, ocean – they roll a dice that either tells them to stay there or move to another water source to which a water molecule could travel from their present source. If they're in a cloud, the dice might lead them to groundwater, a river or a lake. If they're in a lake, they could go into a cloud. If they're in a glacier, they're staying.
• Macroinvertebrate Mayhem: What's living in your water? Hopefully a lot. Greater biodiversity means a water system is healthy. In this modified game of tag, students are assigned to be an organism that lives in water. Those who represent tolerant life, which can withstand pollution and a difficult environment, are able to run. Moderately sensitive life forms walk backward. Sensitive life forms, which can be destroyed by even a tiny change in their environment, must crabwalk. A couple of people are assigned to be pollution molecules. Anyone they tag automatically becomes a tolerant life form. Witt said it only takes a couple of rounds before the diversity becomes one species.
• Sum of the Parts: Each student is given a laminated piece of paper with grass, shore and water and told to create whatever he or she wanted on that land. Some drew factories, others houses, others buildings or farms. All the pieces were taped together to create a river and its shores. Then teachers placed plastic chips representing pollution sources on each – several for the factories, a few for a farm or orchard, one for a house with a yard. They talk about land sloping downward and pollutants moving downstream in the rain, demonstrating how one person's pollution affects dozens more.
• 8-4-1: A cup of water sits on a wooden disc with eight strings attached to it. Each string represents a competing demand on water – recreation, municipal use, transportation, industry. Eight students each take a string, and working together, they have to lift and move the cup of water using the strings and working together. They may have to go over or under a rope or deal with students acting like marauding animals. It's a teamwork exercise that also shows how many demands are on water.
The teamwork exercise is the final game and one meant to drive home the point of Project WET: Water is valuable. Everyone needs it. It must be distributed appropriately.
"The big punch line for the whole time is you have limited water and you have multiple demands on it," Witt said. "There's got to be give and take at times."
Going to India
Witt's family returned from India in early July after spending two weeks in the country. (Witt, whose visa was denied, could not go.) They spent a day with members of the Fisherman Trust, teaching them how to teach the science games.
"You do not have to be a science person to do this," he said.
The next day they went to a private school with 6,000 students and pulled out 120 fifth-grade girls to participate. Both Fisherman Trust teachers and the American teachers took students through the science lessons. The response was even better than they'd hoped. Students loved it, and they learned the material.
"This form of teaching was very different from what they do," Witt said. "They have 50 students in a class, they're packed in as tight as possible on desks, it's 100 percent lecture. As far as labs, the teacher does a demonstration up front. There's absolutely no engagement, no hands on, none of that kind of stuff."
School administrators plan to use this curriculum for all their students, he said. Establishing that relationship also makes the school more likely to send students to the Fisherman Trust outdoor education camp where they'll be able to do more than the simple activities that from a backpack.
From there, the group went to a boarding school to discuss possible collaborations. The American teachers were interested in joint projects connecting the two countries, but the time difference made videoconferencing nearly impossible during regular school hours. At a boarding school, however, when the students were still on campus at night when Texas schools are in session, it would work better.
"One reason to involve the U.S. teachers is to find out if we can connect them to teachers in India," he said. "The two U.S. teachers connected with teachers in India and are already in figuring out what we can do outside of what happened here."
The group's final education stop was at a very poor school in rural India. The children sat on the floor since there were no desks, as did the teacher. The windows were broken. They had almost no resources.
"The teacher had a science experiment set up that consisted of a big mound of dirt on the floor that they planted seeds in and were watering and growing plants," Witt said.
They are, however, getting a set of tablet computers. A member of Fisherman Trust who is an aerophysicist purchased a set of tablets that he brings in once a week; the students use them for research, engagement and collaboration. They want to partner with a U.S. school, with each class doing parts of the same project and uploading and sending their results to their partner school.
What's next for science in a bag
Anecdotally, Witt is a happy educator. The science in a bag concept works. However, he doesn't have the numbers to back up his argument, so he's hoping to go to India in the fall and collect hard data on the effectiveness of this method of science education.
He presented the project during a Global PRiSE poster session in early July, and College of Education Dean Scott Ridley was impressed, he said. This may become part of his dissertation as well.
"If it'll work there, it's going to work about anywhere," he said. "That's why people have gotten excited about the camp in a bag concept."