BOSTON — A mystery is captivating students at the Morse Middle School in Cambridge, Mass.: Are they slug eggs or not?
Karen Spaulding's 7th-grade science class has been observing a community garden, collecting data, and making identifications. The so-called slug eggs under investigation are just one of many "life forms" students have noted - with great enthusiasm.
Ms. Spaulding and her students are "playing scientists" in a program called "Biodiversity Counts," sponsored by the National Center for Science Literacy, Education, and Technology, an initiative of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. The museum is piloting the project in 25 schools in 15 states with the goal of introducing middle-school students to the diversity of life in their own backyards.
Back in October, Spaulding took her students to the community garden and told them to pay attention to what's alive. The weather had already turned cold and the students were dubious. But soon, says Spaulding, "even the most squeamish girls got in there to poke around in the dirt."
One student replied, "When you first asked us to that, I thought you were crazy, but then I couldn't believe what we found."
Slugs. Centipedes. Spiders.
As part of the ongoing field study, each student keeps a notebook and observes a particular plot of the garden. The curriculum, provided by AMNH, stresses the importance of quantitative data. One student suggested they keep track of the temperature. Another said "Let's keep track of the sun."
But the data just doesn't stay in notebooks to be OK'd by teacher Spaulding.
Students post their findings on the World Wide Web as part of the center's initiative. Through the Web, they'll also have access to museum scientists and other classes. So, for example, the students are planning to ask a "real" field scientist about the mystery eggs.
HE "Biodiversity Counts" Web site for participants also has a place for educators. Spaulding gets on line and talks with other teachers involved with the pilot project. Later this month, Spaulding will head to New York to visit with AMNH folks, give them feedback, and help hone the curriculum.
"I think it's very cool," she says about the classroom-museum relationship. She explains that previously, the science-museum experience involved just a field trip where students would run around, push all the buttons of the exhibits, and then forget about it. "What's nice is this is a long-term project where the museum is a resource that houses special people who have dedicated their lives to field work ... it does put [real science] in reach for kids and validates their work as true science," she says.
The projects also put teachers and students on a more-equal playing field. "I don't like it when they have this vision that I know all the answers," Spaulding says. "I can say 'I don't know what slug eggs look like.' So it's the big mystery for all of us."
She says the children learn that even within the city there's a lot of life, and it makes them proud of where they live.
"The excitement and enthusiasm to want to continue has been top-notch," Spaulding adds. "Kids give up their recess to do this, and that says a lot."