STEM workshop transforms Iowa teachers into medical detectives

by Shianne Gruss, Iowa NSF EPSCoR

This summer, a group of Iowa middle school teachers abandoned the books and became crime scene investigators, learning techniques and technologies they will incorporate into their own science classrooms. Project Lead the Way Iowa (PLTW), an Iowa NSF EPSCoR affiliate program, hosted the new workshop titled “Medical Detectives” June 23-27 on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City.
Five teachers, representing school districts from Lansing to Chariton, spent the week investigating medical careers and researching the medical detective field. They learned the basics of vital signs, blood pressure and human body systems, as well as how to know a bacterium from a virus. By the end of the week they had found the blind spot in their eyes, mapped their tongues, and even dissected sheep brains.
In just a few short months, many middle school students across Iowa may be doing similar activities in the classroom - quite the departure from mainstream science learning.
"Science means I would have to teach the rock cycle,” said Sally Zubarik, the PLTW core instructor. “I mean, it's important, but it's more important for the kids to learn about nanotechnology."
The workshop is part of the PLTW Gateway to Technology program, which aims to prepare middle school students for PLTW high school courses. Gateway is one of many programs offered by PLTW, a nonprofit organization working in more than 5,000 schools across the country, including roughly 200 in the state of Iowa.

Sally Zubarik has been teaching the PLTW Gateway to Technology material for seven years, both to students and fellow teachers. The organization provides training for educators at all levels in order to build a STEM-educated workforce.
“It’s very different than how I’ve taught science before,” Zubarik said. “I think my classroom is very messy on most days because there’s just equipment everywhere, but it’s a very hands-on program, and it has really been able to get our school on board with current technology.”
Zubarik teaches at St. Roman Parish School, Milwaukee, WI, one of the first private schools to incorporate PLTW courses into their curriculum nine years ago. Zubarik was also one of the primary PLTW master teachers to test the Medical Detectives workshop in her own classroom before teaching it to educators across the nation.
"That's probably one of the really good things about Project Lead the Way,” Zubarik said. “Everything that is presented in a curriculum has been taught many times with numerous teachers in different school classroom settings. We know how it works. It doesn't just work on paper."
Zubarik praised the group of Iowa teachers participating in the workshop. “They all seem to be very aware of what’s going on in the state,” she said.
Although this is her first time in Iowa, Zubarik has taught from Baltimore, MD to San Jose, CA. She said the group was lucky that it was so small. At times, there can be more than 20 teachers and two core instructors, or master teachers.
At St. Roman, PLTW is now the foundation of the science program. While most schools admit only select students into the program, Zubarik said her classes are for almost everybody.

In addition to the five educators, Rick Bonar, administrative services coordinator and STEM director at the State Hygienic Laboratory, Coralville, participated in the workshop. He said he took the course because he envisions doing more interactive projects in the new Oakdale Research Park training center.
Bonar trains middle school, high school, college, and post-doc levels, but most often kids tour the lab.
Although Bonar got a business degree, he said he somehow fell into public health. "Had I known in elementary the wonders of science and wonders of science occupation, I would have changed my course of studies,” Bonar said.
Now, the laboratory encourages STEM training to grow the workforce, as many people are retiring.

While some workshop participants have been teaching for nearly 20 years, one teacher will be starting fresh this fall. Will Folkerts, a recent graduate from Central College, Pella, will be teaching sixth grade earth science and eighth grade PLTW in his hometown of Chariton. He said he never thought he’d go back to Chariton, but PLTW was the reason he accepted the job. He will be starting the middle school PLTW program for the district.
Another PLTW innovator was present at the workshop. Lisa Welsh, who teaches sixth and seventh grade life science and eighth grade PLTW at Lansing Middle School, was instrumental in getting PLTW to the middle school after the grant was awarded to the district’s high school. Medical Detectives was her second PLTW workshop. Welsh attended Design and Modeling and Automatic Robotics at Iowa State University last summer.
Welsh said she has always been interested in the engineering side of science, since she comes from an engineering family. She is passionate about getting females interested in engineering.
"I think getting exposed at a younger age makes them less afraid,” Welsh said.