With our 2006 HHMI professor grant, we developed the Chemistry to Biodiversity project, designed to teach 3rd and 4th grade students about biodiversity. The three-day module is based on my research into poisonous cone snails and their toxins. We designed the module to be exploratory and open-ended, guided by the principle that the earlier students do hands-on experimental science, the better. With the help of undergraduates who serve as mentors, the students conduct experiments to learn about the chemicals that make up our living and nonliving world. The students formulate hypotheses and collect data on a series of chemical and physical reactions. A highlight comes from mixing materials containing calcium carbonate (e.g., chalk) with vinegar to cause a visible chemical reaction. Students also learn about the biodiversity of cone snails, including their taxonomy, anatomy, venom delivery system, and adaptations that enable them to survive in their environments.
As part of our effort, we developed a hands-on biodiversity kit that uses seashells to introduce students to phylogeny and taxonomic hierarchies. In the taxonomy exercise, we found that giving students a chance to handle the shells was an effective way to hook them on science. This was especially true when the exercise was accompanied by videos we developed showing how cone snails attack and devour fish. In addition to being a fun exercise for students, handing the shells has an important outcome: it allows biodiversity to turn from an abstraction to into a concrete concept embodied by the different organisms. The module has been used in Utah primary schools and in two sites adjacent to areas of particularly high marine biodiversity: Guam and the Philippines. Although we originally developed the module for 3rd to 4th grade students, at the request of participating schools, we recently adapted modules for 7th grade students as well.
With our new HHMI grant, we plan to disseminate the module more widely. One goal is to give every science teacher in the state of Utah access to both the chemistry module and the biodiversity kit so these materials can be seamlessly integrated into their science curricula. We will also expand our mollusk shells kit so it can be used by any science teacher in the country. We will help teachers tailor the taxonomy exercise to include examples of local mollusks and fauna, which we believe gives students a stronger connection between science and "real life." At the request of our partners, we will continue to revise the modules for 7th graders and create a chemistry-intensive 8th grade module.
In addition, we plan to expand the program so that teachers can choose from a range of follow-up activities to reinforce concepts introduced when the students conduct their experiments. The idea is that teachers will be able to choose in-class and out-of-class activities consistent with the themes they want to teach. For example, one teacher might use the evolution-related parts of the module as part of a broader evolution theme, while another teacher might want to focus on a marine biology theme. Modules will also be tailored to include examples of local biodiversity and will meet that state's science standards. They may also be integrated with activities from organizations in the community, ranging from nearby colleges to museums to local conservation organizations, thus broadening the community base involved in science education outreach and amplifying the impact on the community.
Finally, we plan to introduce the experimental module to Muslim villages in coastal areas of the Philippines. Our goal is to introduce science to young students in a manner by which they do not perceive science as "Western," but rather as a set of principles fully consistent with their cultural traditions. We are particularly interested in the intersection between scientific progress and traditional cultures and exploring how science might be used in combination with local cultural traditions to directly benefit local communities. Our plan is to coordinate the experiments with the help of undergraduates from Mindanao State University, who will serve as mentors.