April 20, 2016

Inquiry-Based Research at PHS Sparks Learning and Discovery

PHS Science

SUSTAINABLE FARMING, SUSTAINABLE LEARNING: Princeton High School senior Caroline -McClatchy tends to her aquaponics system, combining soil-less growing of plants with raising fish, in pursuing inquiry-based research as part of a new high school science course.

A new class on research methods is prompting students to observe and ask questions and has encouraged Princeton High School science students to stretch the boundaries of the traditional classroom and the field of science.

“This class really illuminates the heart of science, which is research,” said PHS science teacher Jacqueline Katz. “Very often students feel as though science is a series of facts or calculations, but the scientific process is rooted in observing and asking questions. My goal for this course was to give students the opportunity to observe and ask questions. Each student in the class has developed their own questions based on observation and research.”

Caroline McClatchy and Nick Pibi’s observations began with an interest in a company that seeks to feed 20 million people by 2020 using aquaponics, a sustainable farming method.

The two PHS seniors are implementing an aquaponics system which combines hydroponics, the soil-less growing of plants, with the raising of fish. Their goal is to maximize the efficiency of the self-contained eco-system, where the fish effluent is converted into fertilizer for the plants, which in turn filter the water to pump back into the fish tank — a method requiring only one-tenth of the water used in conventional farming methods.

This project, supported by a Princeton Education Foundation grant, is one of many examples of experiential project-based learning in the new science research class taught by Ms. Katz.

“Nick and Caroline have asked questions about sustainable agriculture,” said Ms. Katz. “Other students are looking into the mechanisms behind REM sleep, or cancer therapeutics, or the role neurons play in ALS development.”

Designed as a multi-year course, the class enables students to use problem-solving and collaboration strategies in undertaking long-term projects. “I hope this class continues to grow throughout the years and helps students find inspiration in the scientific process,” said Ms. Katz.

“These students are pursuing their passion and the topics of their choice,” science supervisor Edward Cohen observed. “This is the model moving forward as we expand the research class over the next three years.” The environmental wet lab created by Ms. McClatchy and Mr. Pibi will be passed on next year to two incoming sophomores and will allow them to build on their predecessors’ knowledge as they continue the research.

Looking at water quality and the optimal concentrations of bacteria for converting nitrogen more efficiently, which began as a science-centered inquiry for Ms. McClatchy and Mr. Pibi, branched out into engineering and beyond.

“They’re hands-on, they’re conducting research, and they’re bringing it all together. They keep at it and design solutions. Pretty cool,” Ms. Katz commented.

Last summer Mr. Pibi emailed his teacher to tell her about an organization called Hatponics, which has the goal of feeding 20 million people by 2020, and Ms. Katz, while on vacation in Georgia, visited some aquaponics systems at schools in the Atlanta area.

Since space was an issue at the high school, the equipment was installed at John Witherspoon Middle School (JW). Eventually high school students will work together with middle schoolers currently taking a new food science class at JW.

Ms. McClatchy envisions expanding the program to all schools as a way of providing a source of healthful locally grown food for the cafeterias. “There’s experimentation, but with the result that you know you’re benefiting your community,” she noted. “There are so many factors to it. It’s not just environmental. It’s also economic. You could really study it your whole life.”

Science teacher Katz looks forward to exciting ongoing research and learning beyond the classroom walls as her research class progresses through the coming years. “Students have really pushed the boundaries by conducting extensive research and synthesizing interesting questions,” she added.