Alternative energy. Global warming. Food production. Technology.
These topics bring to mind emerging global issues and areas for potential scientific advancement.
These are also just a few of the topics seventh-grade students at Whitefish Bay Middle School have been studying as part of a human ecology service learning project.
Students were given only basic guidelines for the project: find a subject related to humans' interaction with the environment, learn something from the community and then share that new knowledge with a different community group.
While students were given basic guidelines, the rest of the project – including research topic, team members and the direction of their research – is left almost entirely up to them. As a result, students feel a greater connection, or “buy-in,” with their research topic, middle school science teacher Nicholas Collins said.
“They get to choose their topic, so they are more prone to be successful,” he said.
The project is in its third year, initially born out of a $6,000 service learning grant made possible by the Whitefish Bay Recreation Department.
Collins said teachers initially did not know what to expect from the first year of the program, as they loosened the leash of the curriculum, but they soon started seeing incredible results such as the Whitefish Bay Community Garden, which received grant funds within weeks of students undertaking the project.
Now that the human ecology service learning project is in its third year, Collins said teachers are learning what to expect as students go through the research process for the first time in their educational career.
The project is also unique in its interdisciplinary nature, as students are combining lessons from social studies classes, science classes and incorporating it into a research paper in their language classes.
The project is made possible by the program’s connections with businesses and organizations in the Milwaukee area. Students originally brainstormed ideas for their projects after listening to representatives from nine community organizations conduct a panel discussion on needs of the community and how students could get involved. After the panel discussion, students created their own project ideas and often contacted these experts to learn more about their specific topic.
Those organizations and others provided guidance for students as they developed their research project. Among the school's recurring community contacts are Feeding America, MMSD, KGMB, Johnson Controls Inc., Urban Ecology Center, Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, Salvation Army, the Whitefish Bay Police Department, the state Department of Natural Resources and the University of Wisconsin Extension, Point Beach Nuclear Power Plant, the Water Institute & John Janssen and Collins’ own parents, who run Collins Dairy in Greenleaf, Wisconsin.
Of the 73 student groups, 45 groups used existing community contacts, and the rest of the groups went out and sought their own contacts.
Students were aided by community contacts in many ways: visits and tours of facilities, conference calls,email dialogues and other forms of communication.
Collins said that type of initiative, and the ability to interact professionally with these contacts, is another benefit to the program. Some students may not have ever contacted a stranger before, so he said they are learning how to coordinate interviews, ask informed questions and learn how to make a professional first impression.
“We really want them to realize there are a lot of available resources out there and teachers are just a start,” he said. “We really let them shoot as high or as big as they want, or they can just meet the basic requirement.”
One group spent three months studying biofuels – how they are produced, how they work and the pros and cons of their usage.
One of the group members, Isabelle Skinner, said she learned a lot about renewable energy in the process.
“Because it’s renewable it doesn’t add carbon into the carbon cycle,” she said. “It balances the carbon cycle out."
The four students in the group said their favorite part of the research process was creating biofuel, which was done with the help of Skinner’s dad, eighth-grade science teacher Matt Skinner, the teacher that originally developed the project.
Another group spent several months researching the pros and cons of growing plants in greenhouses. One group member, Sophie Kowaliczko, grew her plants in a greenhouse, while her partner Caillyn Costello grew the same plant in a natural outdoors environment.
Together, they noticed, that plants grown in greenhouses grow more quickly, but they also withered away faster. Through her experiences, Kowaliczko said she learned that ventilation is a key aspect to creating a successful greenhouse environment.
“Greenhouses are good for starting them out, but then it might be a good idea to move them outside,” she said.
Costello said there are not many greenhouses around the area, so she was curious to learn more about them. Kowaliczko said she had an interest with urban agriculture.
“In the presentation we had earlier, we learned some people were growing in cities and abandoned buildings and I was interested in that,” she said.
Students will debut their research and student learning projects at the third annual Human Ecology Expo, which will be held from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Friday at .