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IU Northwest professors help high school teachers enhance science instruction

Four-week program on Lake Michigan watershed gave teachers locally relevant research to aid curriculum

IU Northwest file photo
Associate Professor Julie Peller, Ph.D., right, talks with local high school teachers about issues facing the Lake Michigan Watershed.

As many science teachers can attest, it’s not uncommon for high school students to label those classes as irrelevant and uninteresting. Failing to make a connection between the material and their everyday lives, students’ interest in science often wanes quickly, much to the dismay of teachers who strive to ignite their pupils’ passion for the subject. 

In a unique educational program for local high school teachers, Indiana University Northwest Associate Professors Dr. Julie Peller, Ph.D, chemistry, and Dr. Erin Argyilan, Ph.D, geosciences, are using their field expertise in environmental science to help their fellow educators change all of that. A study of the Lake Michigan watershed, they say, can serve as one catalyst for bringing relevance and excitement to high school science classrooms.

Thanks to a grant awarded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Indiana Department of National Resources, Lake Michigan Coastal Program, Peller and Argyilan created a program entitled, “Awareness, Education and Action: Students and Educators Taking Ownership of the Lake Michigan Watershed Through Integrated Curriculum.” Six area high school teachers recently completed the four-week course on the IU Northwest campus.

The idea to create the program, the professors said, came about because they felt their freshmen students were coming into their classrooms with little knowledge of or appreciation for the amazing freshwater bodies right in their backyards. Both Peller and Argyilan have done extensive research involving Lake Michigan.

“It would be wonderful to see students who graduate from local high schools coming into our classrooms with better knowledge, better concern and better stewardship towards the environment, especially as it relates to this body of water that is so unique,” Peller said.

Robert Martino, a science teacher at Chesterton High School, said that receiving this type of instruction will help him to show his students why the material that they are learning in his science class is of importance and has local relevance.

“I think that students would be less likely to say (as a result), ‘Why do I have to know this?’ or ‘When am I ever going to use this in my life outside of a classroom?’” he said.

Martino said collaboration amongst high school teachers and university science professors is another huge benefit for the students.

“University professors are in a position to tell us about the most recent scientific findings, as universities are research hubs,” he said. “They are adding to areas of knowledge that lead to changes in scientific perceptions. Since science is ever-changing, collaboration is essential.”

During the session, the teachers received hands-on experience with the most up-to-date laboratory techniques used in the field by scientists, which will help in curriculum enrichment when they apply their learned skills in the classroom.

Peller and Argyilan brought in several experts from area organizations to aid their instruction, including representatives from the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Save the Dunes, East Chicago Water Treatment Plant, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, United States Geological Survey (USGS), Legal Environmental Aid Foundation of Indiana, and Weaver Boos Consultants, among others.

The teachers took field trips to area beaches and heard guest lectures on topics such as: the capacity and limitations of water and wastewater treatments; pollutants; factors that challenge beach health; portable measurement devices for water monitoring; disposal of pharmaceuticals; public health aspects of watershed contamination; sediment movement along the shoreline; and more.

The participating teachers are off and running with ideas for curriculum development in their schools. Cassie Wallace, a biology teacher at Chesterton High School, said she came away from the program with a whole list of ideas and projects that she will incorporate into her curriculum for the coming school year.

“I always use real-world examples to make connections with the content, but now I can use new and more relevant examples,” Wallace said. “I think that by exposing students to some of the issues affecting our watershed, awareness can increase substantially in the community.”

As one example, Martino said he plans to incorporate a lesson on invasive species, which are commonly transported to an area as a result of human interference and, in the end, endanger native species. One example of this is the Asian carp population that may affect Lake Michigan carp. Another is the concern about the proper disposal of wastes that affect our groundwater, which may in turn affect our drinking water.

In addition to Wallace and Martino, teachers who participated are: Robin Dillon, of Hanover Central High School; Heather Castle, of Portage High School; and Kelly Loving and Joseph Correa, of Crown Point High School.

The next step in this program is for Peller and Argyilan to pass the baton to the teachers, who plan to share their curriculum ideas with still more educators. By the end of the next school year, for example, the teachers intend to create a publication documenting the ways in which they have integrated these topics into their curricula. They also spoke of having the students participate in a public poster session illustrating what they’ve learned.

“They will become the experts as to what works in those high school classrooms and they will be armed the best to carry this on and work with their peers and other science teachers,” Peller said.


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Emily Banas
Office of Marketing and Communications

Erika Rose
Office of Marketing and Communications

Additional Article Photos

IU Northwest file photo
Associate Professor Erin Argyilan, Ph.D, center, with local high school teachers while on a field trip to Portage Lakefront Park.

IU Northwest file photo
Associate Professor Julie Peller, Ph.D. collects samples in Lake Michigan.