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Catholic school students learn STEM fields in a hands-on way

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IMAGE: CNS photo/Jerry L. Mennenga

By Joanne Fox

SIOUX CITY, Iowa (CNS) — Amid a roomful of oohs and aahs, Aubrie Harrington carefully — oh, so carefully — used her scissors to trim away the cornea and the gelatinous fat from a cow eye.

A student with weaker stamina might not have been able to handle the cow eye dissection — immediately following lunch.

“I think this is interesting,” said the Sioux City Mater Dei-Nativity student in between snipping at Bessie’s eyeball. “I like science in general and I really like this session because it is so hands-on.”

Harrington was one of almost 200 seventh graders from 10 schools to participate in a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Day at Briar Cliff University, the Catholic college in Sioux City, in May.

Jason Adams, assistant professor at Briar Cliff, oversaw the cow eye dissection.

“The students learn the basic anatomy of the human eye, then apply the knowledge as you perform a dissection of a cow’s eye,” he said. “We looked at the similarities and differences between the human and cow eye and learned common functions of the anatomical structures.”

The daylong event was tailored to help middle-school students learn more about the STEM fields, said Brenda Welch, youth program specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach and a member of the STEM festival committee.

“In today’s complex world, teachers, students, parents and communities need to understand how the STEM fields are the basis for innovative problem-solving and discovery,” she said. “Those are best acquired through exploratory learning and active student engagement.”

The event was the fourth STEM day held at Briar Cliff.

Students who participated in a “Sensory and Simulation in Nursing” session did not go unnoticed. Many of them chose to walk around the campus, complete with a lab gown, hairnet and mask, looking as if they were moments away from going into surgery.

That session had the students in a simulation lab. In addition to having them suit up, they were shown some of the ways that people who have trouble seeing and hearing live daily by wearing eyeglasses which simulated cataracts, glaucoma and a stroke. They listened through a stethoscope to the irregular and normal heartbeats of the lab’s simulation dummies. Finally, they donned heavy gloves and tried to open a childproof prescription bottle.

Welch thought the sessions provided a broad experience for students.

“I think it’s important for them to see that they don’t have to leave Iowa to experience science, technology and math,” she said. “These activities just reinforce that.”

Sixteen sessions ran the gamut from the cow eye dissection to dog training — with a live dog.

“These students are the next generation of brain power,” said Melissa Beerman with the Monona County Extension office in nearby Onawa. “The best part of doing this is watching that light bulb moment for them.”

Perhaps in honor of the television series “Game of Thrones,” the Marshmallow Catapult Challenge had students building a catapult out of ordinary materials with the goal of launching a marshmallow more than six feet across a stage.

The idea appealed to Aylyn Castellanos of Holy Cross-Blessed Sacrament School and Nancy Hochderffer of Sacred Heart School, both in Sioux City.

“I picked this activity because it sounded like so much fun,” Aylyn said. “Also, I was able to get one of my four marshmallows in the target.”

Although Nancy may have been more successful with using the marshmallows to make s’mores, she liked the activity because it utilized both science and math.

“However, my favorite session today was the dog training,” she clarified. “I learned a lot about how to keep calm when you are training your dog.”

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Fox is managing editor of The Catholic Globe, newspaper of the Diocese of Sioux City.

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