Sanford Lab in the classroom

June Apaza demonstrates “Exploring the Unseen”, one activity which students are given a tub full of water and a cup stuffed with a paper towel. The challenge is to completly submerge the cup without getting the paper towel wet. Student use indirect evidence to reason things that can’t be seen, reached or detected.

Students love a good mystery. So, Education and Outreach came up with a novel way to incorporate the science at Sanford Lab in K-12 classrooms.

“Students are fascinated by the unexplained and the unexpected,” said Dr. June Apaza, Director of Education and Outreach. “Because there is so much of that here, we’re trying to tap into that fascination.”

This summer, E&O developed six science curriculum units—two each for grades 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12. Each unit includes an inquiry based activity kit designed to encourage students to ask questions and test theories. 

The units were designed with several goals in mind, Apaza said: to stimulate interest in science; provide role models; promote scientific literacy; encourage careers in science; and reach a broad range of students, particularly minorities, females and the economically disadvantaged.

Developing the units was challenging, Apaza said, largely because much of the science at Sanford Lab is abstract. “You can’t show someone dark matter or neutrinos,” she said. “All you can do is propose theories. We have to help students wrap their heads around the science in a way that emphasizes the fun, excitement and content.” 

The units were also designed with teachers in mind. “Teachers have science books and they have canned experiments. Using these kits allows them to connect with real science experiments that exist in real life and, particularly, in their region,” Apaza said.

This year’s units are part of a pilot program. E&O contacted 25 teachers who did science academy work to find the interest level. So far, 18 have expressed interest in implementing one or more units. The units run for 7-10 days, depending on the grade level and are physically brought to the classroom by an E&O staff member. With the feedback they receive from educators, the team will refine the units and provide intense teacher summer workshops. They plan to have 12 units in total.  

“The Sanford Lab team is working hard to expand the reach of our education and outreach program to the entire state of South Dakota and then regionally and nationally as our program matures,” said Mike Headley, Executive Director of the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority. “These curriculum modules provide K-12 teachers with tools to share the science at Sanford Lab with their students in a way that is aligned with the current science education standards.”   

Six teachers helped develop the units. “It was exciting to watch them work and see their excitement grow as they progressed from nebulous ideas to completed units and activities,” Apaza said. “Now those teachers are in their classrooms and they can’t wait for us to get there to start implementing the program.”