By Helen Widman
Students watch with glee as their homemade concrete pucks fall to their fateful end on the ground below. Some of the pucks survive in one piece; others are not so lucky. But it’s all a part of the lesson today. Steve Smith, 11th grade chemistry teacher at Animas High School in Durango, Colorado, looks on as his students learn about the strength of concrete.
“The one class I had students showing up early and leaving late was on the day we were making the concrete,” Smith says. “And it wasn’t just because we had to make a lot of concrete. They were just so stoked to be making something and then climb on the roof and drop things off. They really, really loved that.”
This concrete experiment was inspired by one of nine lessons in the Ceramic and Glass Industry Foundation (CGIF) classroom kit, which Smith received through a CGIF Kit Grant. Smith’s project, titled “The Chemistry of Construction Materials,” ties in materials science lessons from the kit while also incorporating real-life construction. Animas High School is currently building a new high school, so Smith partnered with the local geotech firm that did the concrete analysis for the new school to show students the properties of concrete.
Founded 13 years ago, Animas High School, a project-based charter school, has never really occupied a permanent facility. Through a state grant that funds capital construction projects, AHS will soon occupy a shiny, new resting place at Fort Lewis’s local college campus.
“One of the stipulations that comes with the grant that we received is that we reach some level of environmental sustainability with the design and build of the school,” Smith says.
Smith utilized a program called Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) to help his students meet the state grant’s goal of sustainability. Throughout the past school year, Smith not only used the CGIF classroom kit to combine materials science and chemistry, but he also allowed students to pick their final projects from what they learned. These projects will then have a home inside the new school.
“I thought having the students actually design and build the displays that will go into the new school that showcase the sustainable elements of the design and the chemistry of the materials that went into them would be a really nice synthesis of our project-based learning style and check off this box for the CHPS program,” Smith says.
Two of Smith’s former students, Chloe Sturm and Julia Earley, are rising seniors at AHS and their project was a community favorite at their class exhibition. Their project, “Why Light is Essential to Students,” takes form as an infographic that will live by the new glass windows in the building.
“Kids are still developing, teenagers and high school students, and when they don’t have (light) it can lead to a lot of sleep issues,” Sturm says. “And a lot of issues, like focusing at school and seeing school as not a bright place or a place to focus and learn because the lighting is a big part of that.”
While their project focuses more on the psychological aspect of UV light rather than scientific, the way Smith taught them about UV light and glass in their class inspired Sturm and Earley.
“One thing about Steve is if you have any kind of question, like I had a bunch of questions during the glass explanation … he knows everything and you could ask him anything and he would give you a good answer,” Earley says.
Both Sturm and Earley prefer the project-based learning style that AHS offers because there’s always a way to learn about something they’re actually interested in, along with a hands-on element that doesn’t always exist in school settings.
“It’s one thing for us to learn about the process of making concrete on paper and why it hardens and what chemicals go into it, and the different formulas like math we could do to represent it, but it’s a whole different thing to be given the materials and say, ‘Okay, now you do it, and you’re gonna have to figure out how to make it strong,’” Earley says.
AHS gives Smith the opportunity to embody their “Teacher as Designer” principle, which lends him a higher level of autonomy in the classroom. He says that this also allows him to learn alongside the students, keeping the classroom material fresh and his mind sharp as they explore something new together, like the concrete lab.
“Being able to have something in their hands where they were doing something, breaking something, making something, that makes chemistry way more fun for the students,” Smith says. “And that engagement then sets the pathways toward learning.”
All in all, it’s Smith’s hope that his chemistry students last year and this upcoming year learn the relevance of chemistry in materials as well as the relevance of materials and sustainability.
“It’s great that these sorts of opportunities exist to connect students to the science (of) materials, so I’m appreciative of the CGIF for that,” he says.
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