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TRIAGE Summer Institute Wraps
July 10, 2007

From July 9 through 13, a large cohort of middle school students is keeping busy in the fields, ponds and laboratories at Calvin College as they finish up the second of two TRIAGE summer research institutes.

TRIAGE Students Conduct a Water ExperimentTRIAGE (which stands for Team Researchers in a GLOBE-al Environment) is a year-round science research program funded through a $720,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s “Academy for Young Scientists” program. TRIAGE brings 110 middle school students to Calvin—from Grand Rapids Public Schools, Grand Rapids Christian Schools, the Diocese of Grand Rapids Catholic Schools, Forest Hills Public Schools and Wyoming Public Schools—to hone their research skills and learn about environmental sustainability.

“The whole goal behind the Academy for Young Scientists is to increase the number of students going into science, technology, engineering and math,” said Calvin education professor and TRIAGE coordinator Rachel Sytsma Reed. “Research shows that student lose interest in science back in middle school. By middle school, science is less and less hands-on and kids don’t see the connection to real life. If we want to increase the number of people going into science research, we need to engage them young enough to be prepared for high school and college level science.

One primary focus of TRIAGE is training students to do scientific research.

“They really think that research is getting on the Web and looking up information, and that’s what a lot of research is—but not science research,” said Sytsma Reed. TRIAGE teaches the students about how to form a feasible research question, about the importance of replicates and controls in experiments and about why it’s important to record scientific findings.

“The research institute is where they ask their first research questions. They conduct their first research project and they compile their data and results in a poster presentation like a scientist would at a conference,” said Sytsma Reed. “They learn to present their data and discuss their data. And they learn what they can and cannot conclude.”

The current TRIAGE cohort is researching everything from the effect of water quality on macro invertebrates (larvae and worms) to the effect of cola, bleach or power drinks versus water on growing plants to the effect of the environment on decomposition.

“Kids don’t often have the chance to explore the questions they have in an intensive time frame,” said Rebecca Martin, who facilitates the various after-school programs for TRIAGE. “This is the time for kids to have a chance to pique their curiosity and to follow through with what they’re interested in.” Working alongside the students—as colleagues rather than mentors—are Calvin education students and the local teachers who are members of the TRIAGE professional development pod. The latter, who teach at a variety of area schools, are enrolled in TRIAGE to learn how to incorporate scientific research into their existing curriculums.

When not experimenting at the lab bench, TRIAGE students are field tripping: They study stream ecology at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) and trash at the waste energy plant. They serve as junior docents at the botanical gardens. They collect insect samples at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute. “A lot of scientists study at Pierce Cedar Creek, and we’re providing a baseline for them,” explained Martin. They also count butterflies at Grand River Park along with lepidopterists from Ottawa County Parks and Recreation.

Several of the field trips—to the water treatment or wastewater plants to learn about the water cycle or to the waste energy company to learn about trash—highlight the second TRIAGE goal: to educate students about environmental sustainability.

When the summer research institutes conclude, the students (who began TRIAGE in January, 2007) will continue to pursue their research questions. The culminating event for the program, held in December, will be a science colloquium where the students will present their research in poster form like real scientists.

Students are chosen for TRIAGE based on interest and a significant time commitment. “They have to be willing to commit to 150 hours outside of school time in the calendar year,” said Sytsma Reed. “We have students across a really wide ability range. We have kids from varying socio-economic backgrounds. TRIAGE is a really diverse group that represents, we hope, what Grand Rapids looks like.”

The TRIAGE students, Martin added, are finding out that science agrees with them. “The first day when they come, they’re blah. It’s their summer, and they want the time off. By the second day, they’re excited to come. By the end of it, they don’t want to leave,” she said. “So that’s kind of cool.”

~written by Calvin staff writer Myrna Anderson

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