Learning Studios in Action: Students and Teachers Team Up to Study Their School’s Backyard

Posted by on November 28, 2012 in Featured, Learning Studios | 0 comments

As a part of Learning Studios, students at Old Mill Middle School South conduct year-long investigations across the STEM disciplines.

STEM teachers at Old Mill Middle School South in Anne Arundel County, Maryland teamed across grade levels to investigate water issues in their community. During a 3-day NCTAF-led Design Session this summer, the team developed instructional plans for the year that would map hands-on learning projects to the existing curriculum. Stepping out of the traditional confines of instructional practices, the teachers at Old Mill are using their entire school grounds as a lab space.  The team of teachers will use the stream outside their school as a catalyst for discussion and research into the issue of Human Impact on the Environment. More specifically, students will study issues surrounding water quality in the Chesapeake Region. Students in sixth grade will use the stream to study organisms and then return to the stream to study acids and bases in eighth grade science.

Peggy Donnelly (left) from the Environmental Protection Agency collaborates with science teacher Kara Gustaffson (right) in a discussion on authentic field work protocols.

As a part of Learning Studios, teachers and students collaborated with Peggy Donnelly, a freshwater scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency, to conduct authentic research in the field. Ms. Donnelly visited the 8th grade science classes a few weeks ago and reflected on her career path in a discussion with the students. She advised the students as they collected water samples from the stream and analyzed the samples.  During this process, Ms. Donnelly compared the processes that the students were using to the methods of data collection used by the EPA. Unlike the traditional drive-by lecture format of most “expert” visits in schools, Ms. Donnelly, a former high school science teacher, has developed a long-term relationship with the teachers at Old Mill. This collaboration has resulted in the development of these authentic STEM learning opportunities.

The students’ investigations into Human Impact on the Environment will not end with one day of water sampling: this event was just one of a series that will allow students to gain background knowledge necessary to conduct their own original, authentic research. During the course of the year, teachers will shift the responsibility for the investigations from teacher-led to student-led.  At the end of the year, community members will hear students present their findings on the Human Impact on the Environment at the school-wide Chesapeake Bay Festival, giving students a powerful voice in their learning at Old Mill South.


Curious what other Learning Studios are working on? Read about teacher collaboration in Anne Arundel CountyBaltimore County, Howard CountyPrince George’s County, and the State of New Hampshire.



Laura Coscarelli, Program Manager, facilitates professional development and teacher collaboration for STEM Learning Studios. Laura also manages the NCTAF Learning Studios’ online communities and contributes to outreach and social media efforts.

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