iRISE and Denos Work to Get Students Hooked on Science in Middle School

Sharlene Denos discusses lesson plan with teachers during iRISE professional development.
Sharlene Denos (right) discusses lesson plan with teachers during iRISE professional development. Also helping with the professional development are Barbara Hug standing on the (left) and grad student Yan Zhou (standing, in the center). Photograph courtesy Andrew Stengele.

July 31, 2012

One of Sharlene Denos' passions is to expose middle school students to hands-on activities in order to pique their interest in science so it becomes a life-long interest—possibly even a career. Denos hopes to give today's middle school student opportunities she didn't have at that age.

"I never had an opportunity to do any of these things when I was in school. I never once met a scientist or an engineer before I came to the university. We have a real inquiry-based, hands-on focus to all of the lessons that we develop, and that's also something that I didn't have the benefit of. The schools I went to weren't that great…In middle school I didn't do one single lab, ever, in my entire time there."

It was this passion to change the way science is taught to K–12 students that brought her to her current position as the K–12 Education Coordinator at the Center for the Physics of Living Cells (CPLC) and the Director for iRISE (Illinois Researchers in Partnership with K–12 Science Educators).

As a grad student, Denos was an NSF GK-12 Fellow. In this National Science Foundation program, the Fellow is paired up with a local teacher, and they develop curriculum and teach together. She found it really meaningful, and this experience served as the basis for the iRISE program's current emphasis on three audiences: graduate students, middle school teachers, and middle school students themselves.

Involvement of graduate students is through the Physics 598SE course, in which students create hands-on lessons middle school science teachers can use with their students. Denos says it "really does build on their ability to develop curriculum and also their teaching skills." In a nutshell, she calls it "a chance for them to develop a complete lab or lesson from scratch." She indicates that while some grad students get lots of chances to teach undergraduates, others don't.

iRISE graduate student presents her lesson on algae during the summer workshop.
iRISE graduate student Yan Zhou of Agricultural and Biological Engineering presents her lesson on algae during the summer workshop.

Further, according to Denos, teaching college students is different from teaching younger students: "The kind of teaching that you do with undergrads is: you sort of warn them of what they have to learn, and then they just sort of go and learn it. But with the younger students, you really have to be skilled. It takes a lot of skill to be able to communicate these very complex ideas to middle school students. So it really helps with their communication skills."

She also reports that it prepares graduate students to reduce complex research to terms a layperson can understand…or a seventh grader:

"People often say that if you're writing something for the general public, you should aim for an eighth grade level in terms of reading, and scientific understanding…maybe even less than that. So in a way, this is a program that trains future scientists to communicate really well with the public. Because if they can communicate their research to a seventh-grader, then they can communicate it to the general public, who is in charge of whether or not they get funded to do their research. So it's really, really crucial for scientists that they have this skill to explain to the public, 'Ok, here's what I'm doing, and this is why it's important.'"

Teachers enjoying hands-on activity during iRISE 2012 summer workshop.
Teachers enjoy hands-on activity during iRISE 2012 summer workshop on the Illinois campus.

iRISE also has several mechanisms for working with middle school teachers. For instance, in this past summer's iRISE teacher workshop, Physics 598SE students shared with participants the lessons they had developed. During the workshop, the teachers themselves tried out hands-on activities they could later use with their middle school students.

How are these lessons beneficial to teachers? According to Denos, "They tie the curriculum together with current research in science and engineering and with important social issues. If there's something that people are talking about a lot in the news, the graduate students will pull from that and turn that into a lesson, and talk about the science behind it."

Two teachers at the iRISE workshop prepare to smell oil made from algae.
Two teachers at the iRISE workshop prepare to smell a rather putrid-smelling product made from algae.

Some of the relevant lessons offered in this summer's workshop included: "Wind Turbine Design," "Carbon Cycle and Bioreactor Design Competition," "Asteroid Impacts," and "Representational Color in Astronomical Images."

In addition to designing lessons teachers can use with their students, iRISE works with the students directly. For example, in May 2012, Edison Middle School AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) students who had been involved in iRISE science enrichment activities this past spring visited campus. During the field trip, students took part in hands-on lessons taught by iRISE/CPLC graduate students, as well as Joe Muskin and Matthew Alonso from NanoCEMMS (Center for Nanoscale Chemical-Electrical-Mechanical Manufacturing Systems).

Why the focus on middle school? Denos considers it to be a crucial age, based on research from a 2006 science paper, Planning Early for Careers in Science. She says the report indicated that "a middle school student with a strong science interest (as measured by their indication of whether they expect to have a career in science) and an average test score is more likely to end up with a STEM degree than one with high test scores and low interest. Getting students interested—getting them hooked at this age is absolutely crucial."

Author/Photographer: Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative

Edison Middle School student lowering the stage during a workshop NanoCEMMS' Matthew presented on rapid prototyping (3D printing).
Edison Middle School AVID student lowering the stage during a lesson NanoCEMMS' Matthew Alonso presented on rapid prototyping (3D printing) in May 2012.

SOLIDarity EXperiences (SOLIDEX) through the Eyes of Children

What do children aged 11-13 in two countries think about solidarity?
Full Story

Students launch ASL STEM Vocabulary App Company

Students launch ASL STEM Vocabulary App Company
Full Story

Innovation, Inspiration on display at the Undergraduate Research Symposium

Undergraduate Research Week took place April 23-29, 2023, and culminated Thursday, April 27, 2023
Full Story

What would you like to see – 3D printers? Magnets? Solar-powered racing cars? Robobrawl?

March 28, 2023
EOH occurs Friday, March 31, and Saturday, April 1, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
Full Story

Tour of Illinois’ Materials Research Lab through I-MRSEC sparks Franklin students’ interest in Materials Science

March 1, 2023
Students from the Champaign middle school had a tour of the Material Research Laboratory (MRL) in early February.
Full Story

Nobel Project’s End-of-Year Zoom Bash Recaps Learning

February 1, 2022
The STEM Illinois Nobel Project held a special, end-of-the-year Zoom event celebrating its participating students’ achievements.
Full Story

It’s not magic, it’s physics

January 26, 2022
In Franklin STEAM Academy, Musical Magnetism program makes STEM fun, approachable.
Full Story

Program prepares STEM educators to teach all students

November 30, 2021
This summer, a group of educators gathered to learn about engaging STEM activities they can do with their students.
Full Story

Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program

November 11, 2021
Undergrads get a taste of research through I-MRSEC’s REU program.
Full Story

Goldstein’s Renaissance Engineering Summer Camp

November 1, 2021
Goldstein’s Renaissance Engineering Summer Camp Incorporates Art, Design, Mechatronics, and Mentoring
Full Story

TechTogether Chicago to Redefine the Hacker Stereotype

July 10, 2021
New workshops that can help inspire students to pursue careers in technology..
Full Story

Aerospace Engineering Launches Virtual Summer Camps to Pique Students’ Interest in Aero.

July 2, 2021
Design an aircraft then watch it soar after launching it with a huge rubber band. Build a Mars lander to safely transport a real egg, then test the contraption by dropping it from a second story window.
Full Story

Undergrads Experience Materials Science Research Courtesy of the I-MRSEC REU

June 16, 2021
Ten undergraduate students are spending the summer of 2021 discovering what research is like.
Full Story

MatSE Afterschool Academy

MatSE Afterschool Academy

June 14, 2021
MatSE Afterschool Academy to Introduce Students to Materials Science and Beyond.
Full Story

Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest

Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest

June 14, 2021
Taylor Tucker Embraces Multidisciplinary Interest While Researching Task Collaboration.
Full Story

Exposes Franklin Middle Schoolers to Science, CS

What Studying Engineering at Illinois is Like?

May 25, 2021
NSBE’s Michaela Horn Exposes Franklin Middle Schoolers to Science, CS, and What Studying Engineering at Illinois is Like.
Full Story

Jenny Saves a Convertible.

Children’s-Book-Writing Duo/

May 19, 2021
Convertibles and Thunderstorms—Children’s-Book-Writing Duo on Their Way Thanks to Illinois Training and Encouragement from Mentors.
Full Story

Improve Learning in Engineering

Improve Learning in Engineering

May 17, 2021
Liebenberg Espouses Mini-Projects to Engage Students Emotionally, Improve Learning in Engineering.
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

BIOE435 Capstone Projects

May 12, 2021
BIOE435 Capstone Projects - BIOE Seniors Use Knowledge/Skills to Problem Solve.
Full Story

Elani and Gonzalo shine a UV light on a rose that has absorbed a solution that has made it fluorescent.

Illinois Scientists Shine a (UV) Light on Fluorescence

May 7, 2021
What is fluorescence? What causes it?
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

HackIllinois 2021 “Rekindled Connections” With The Tech Community

May 5, 2021
Annual student hackathon HackIllinois with the aim of developing projects on current problems facing society.
Full Story

A Shane Mayer-Gawlik image of the Bridger Aurora, part of his Night Skies photography collection exhibited at the Art-Science Festival.

The Art-Science Festival

April 26, 2021
Illinois Art-Science Festival: Illuminating the Universe...from the Quantum World to the Cosmos.
Full Story

Joshua Whitely makes an adjustment to the 3D Bioprinter during the demo.

Illinois Engineering Seniors Prepared to Change the World

April 22, 2021
Ready. Set. Go! Illinois Engineering Seniors Prepared to Change the World.
Full Story

HML 2021 Virtual Health

HML 2021 Virtual Health

April 19, 2021
Make-a-Thon Gives Citizen Scientists a Shot at Making Their Health-Related Innovations a Reality.
Full Story

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

April 7, 2021
I-MRSEC’s Music Video for EOH ’21 Plugs Graphene, 2D Materials
Full Story

Health Make-a-Thon Orientation

HML 2021 Health Orientation

March 30, 2021
HML 2021 Health Make-a-Thon Orientation Prepares Finalists for Competition.
Full Story

Andrea Perry shows Franklin students how to take apart the magnetic drawing board they received in their kit

Musical Magnetism

March 25, 2021
Musical Magnetism: Encouraging Franklin Middle Schoolers to Express Science Via the Arts.
Full Story

Carmen Paquette street performing.

Love of Science

March 9, 2021
Paquette Conveys Her Love of Science, Dance to Franklin STEAM Students Via Musical Magnetism.
Full Stroy

An Engineering Exploration participant exhibits the tower they built as part of the engineering challenge related to Civil Engineering

Engineering Exploration

March 2, 2021
SWE’s Engineering Exploration Outreach Lives Up to Its Name.

ChiS&E’s Family STEM Day

ChiS&E’s Family STEM Day

February 23, 2021
Helps Chicago Youngsters Progress Along the STEM Pipeline Toward Engineering.

Kathny Walsh

Kathy Walsh

February 17, 2021
On Her First Foray into STEAM, Kathy Walsh Acquaints Franklin Students with Microscopy, Haiku.

ChiS&E student

ChiS&E CPS Students

January 19, 2021
Illinois Undergrads Encourage ChiS&E CPS Students Toward Possible Careers in Engineering.

I-MRSEC’s Music Video

CISTEME365 Provides Year-Round PD/Community

January 4, 2021
to Illinois Teachers in Support of Informal STEM Education Efforts to Underserved Students.