Welcome to season two episode six of Ideas That Matter where we meet with people, making a difference in education. Dr. Michelle Thompson an instructor at Effingham College and Career Academy in Georgia, talks with Julia about participating in the Kasi project research study and working with her students in a STEM-focused classroom.
This is Julia Winter with another Ideas That Matter podcast. It's been a while, but we're really excited to talk with Michelle Thompson of Effingham College and Career Academy in Georgia. What town in Georgia?
Michelle Thompson (00:37):
We are in Rincon, Georgia, which is the next County up from where Savannah is. So right on the coast of Georgia, Southeast Georgia.
Is it rural? Is it urban? Is it suburban?
Michelle Thompson (00:48):
Classify as more suburban? Now, once upon a time, we were definitely rural, but a lot of Chatham County is moving into our County. So we're seeing tremendous growth. So it definitely becoming more suburban, I would say,
We Connected through the Kasi project, which is the Department of Education or Institute of Educational Sciences funded project, where we're building new learning tools for blind students in high school chemistry. Can you tell us how the connection happened?
Michelle Thompson (01:17):
Yes. So during what I've termed Coronacation, which was when, last spring, when we'd were all sent home to do virtual school, like many teachers, I was floundering around trying to figure out how to best teach my students in a virtual world. And I'm a part of the AP chemistry teachers, Facebook group. And you had posed a question on there. Hey, does anyone teach chemistry to blind or visually impaired students? And I knew that I had a student that I would be teaching this year. I immediately said, "Me, I'm teaching someone." And I was interested in what you had to say about that. So that's how we got connected, through Facebook.
There are a few Facebook groups. That's all I look at on Facebook. And it's actually very interesting cause I see both high school and college, the needs are very similar in both. I almost wish they would merge together Effingham College and Career Academy. It's an interesting school. Tell me a little bit about that.
Michelle Thompson (02:13):
We actually, we are a 9-12 STEM program. Our building draws from our two large high schools. So students elect to come here. One side of our building is our CTAE program. So students are still back at their base school. As we call it South Effingham high school and Effingham County high school, they take the majority of their classes there, but then they would come over to our building one period a day and take their CTAE classes.
CTAE Is the career...
Michelle Thompson (02:40):
Career, Tech, Agriculture, and Engineering. Yeah, so things like healthcare and our engineering and we have automotive and culinary arts, and computer science, logistics. We have agricultural programs, lots of different CTAE options for our students to come and take one period a day here. And then they take the rest of their classes back at their base school. But our side of the building is different. Our STEM program, our students are still members back at their base schools. They still are members of South Effingham high school or Effingham County high school, but they take all of their classes with us with the exception of things. Like if they wanted to go back and take band at their high school and be a part of the marching band, or if they're into chorus or drama or something like that and then they, of course, can also participate in their sports back at their home schools, but they take their English and their math and their sciences and everything here with us.
Michelle Thompson (03:30):
We bring in about 150 students each year and you have to start in the ninth grade in order to come. They can't come you know, in 10th or 11th grade, if you don't start at ninth grade, you don't get in. It's based off of your academic standing, there are requirements. And then we open up the lottery, like I said, there are 150 slots. So we do a lottery. We draw the first 150 names and we invited, I think, close to 500 students this past year. And we know that STEM is not for every student. So some choose, of course, to stay back at their base school, but of the 500 that we invited. I think we had close to 275 almost, that applied. And then we drew the 150. And as of yesterday, I think we only had 11 spots that hadn't been claimed yet.
Michelle Thompson (04:13):
We're doing great things here. What makes us different is that we teach everything through a STEM mindset instead of just having your traditional Science classes or English classes or History classes. We really do a deliberate job of connecting all of those disciplines together. So that in your science class, you're talking about governmental policy and how that drives your environmental engineering. And so we're even pulling a CTAE discipline in. So it's that very neat, very, you know, there's such a push. I think for, we hear in education about the four C's about collaboration, creative thinking and communication and all of that having students think about real-world problems. And that's why I really do love the STEM model because I feel like it not only addresses those rural problems but makes students look at things from a holistic viewpoint, not just from, you know, a one-sided sort of thing. Students are going to have to use what they learn next door in social studies down the hallway in science and I think that's important.
That is neat, So they can see both sides and do their own research. You teach AP chem, honors chem and the scientific research group. When you did our research study with your sighted students, were you in the AP chem class or in the scientific research class?
Michelle Thompson (05:28):
I was in the AP chemistry class for that study. Now all of our students have gone through scientific research. They take a scientific research course every year. So that's again the beauty of our model because I still could talk about it from a research perspective because they've all had scientific research. So I think that that's important. Um, I chose them because I felt like they had the content knowledge to be able to give you appropriate feedback on the lesson itself because they knew what the materials should look like from a student's view. And so then they could give you that appropriate feedback. So that's why we use them,
So just to catch up, Kasi is a system that uses plastic manipulatives that talk to the students, tell the students what they've built and it's designed for sighted students and for blind students through augmented reality and computer vision. And Michelle got to be part of our research study with both her sighted students and her blind student. And our research partner is WestEd, which is based in California. We weren't involved in the research. So it's actually sort of interesting for us to hear your perspective. How did that all go down? How did it work with you and your students in this wonderful STEM environment?
Michelle Thompson (06:43):
Yeah, it went great. I'll have to back up a little bit from the way that we run our STEM model here from the very first day that our ninth graders walk in, we train them to be independent thinkers and we train them to be able to adapt to pretty much any situation that comes their way. So my students embrace this opportunity to work with something that could potentially hit the market. That was so exciting to them that they were working on a real product that could help so many people. And so they just love doing things like that. They love trying new things and they're very flexible and they're not ones that all that you have to follow a script. And so that's what I think really made this experience very authentic for them because other than, you know, showing them the basics of how to set the device up, I pretty much just let them run with it.
Michelle Thompson (07:31):
And I stepped back and listen to their conversations. And I think that was what one of the big takeaways for me is that, especially in AP chemistry, I get so focused. I think all of us as educators sometimes get so focused on the content. And we forget that that even if they are big kids, they're still kids and they like to play and they like to touch things. And, and so just listening to their conversations about moving the pieces around and encouraging one another that, no, it shouldn't look like this. It should look like that. And justifying, there's a big push about claim evidence reasoning, you know, how do you know that that's supposed to look like that? How can you back your answer up with some evidence? So it was exciting for me to watch that interaction with those students and then even more so, whenever they were interviewed by West ed, that was pretty cool to listen to them, communicate, you know, with real researchers.
Michelle Thompson (08:19):
So it's not, it's no longer me just standing up there saying research is important. They got to live it out. And I thought that was a really neat takeaway there. What I've really thought was neat when I talked to the students about, and this was all of my students about how you had to bring in WestEd to eliminate any bias, we had just gotten finished talking about bias and interjecting our own bias into our research and how you have to be so careful of that. And so that was a great way for me to show, see, this is real research and like, she can't run the study on it because she would say, this is a really great, you know, product because you're excited and you want to sell product and the terms of making money, but you want people to believe in your product the way that you do. And so it was a really good opportunity, a really good learning experience for them.
So this came up in our conversation yesterday in our team, you said that they designed this to be in small groups. I'm just curious how the groups interacted with the system.
Michelle Thompson (09:15):
I had one group that there was like a group leader if you will, that it was manipulating it, but for the most part, what I could tell the students had the pieces laying out on the tabletop. And almost like if you were to sit down to put together a puzzle, you know, you wouldn't have one person saying there's the blue piece over there, and it needs to go in the upper right-hand corner. You know, they were all collaborating together, which was neat.
That's good. That came up in our conversation yesterday in our team. Now tell me a little bit about your work with Austin, who is your blind student.
Michelle Thompson (09:43):
Austin is in my honors chemistry class. So he was separate from my AP chemistry kids. I had him one-on-one what was neat about him, and I think speaks volumes to the product and the way that the curriculum was written, Austin had no prior knowledge of this lesson at all and completed the lesson in the same amount of time that my AP chemistry students completed it in. And I thought that that was something very important to mention that, you know, my AP chem students, they've actually had this material twice now, both in honors chemistry and then also in AP extensively, but he completed it at the same time. That's a testament both to Austin's intellect, but then also to the ease of the way that the material is written, it's very easy to follow and understand and get that feedback so that you know how to change that for the next one. It was, it was pretty neat to see
Were there some aha moments when you were working with Austin, he is a neat student, because he doesn't show a lot of emotion we've interviewed him, but you could see this glimmer every now and then when you talk, it's like, he's like, yup. That was me. Am I right?
Michelle Thompson (10:43):
Yes, absolutely. So the aha moment was for me, definitely was that I don't think about Austin not being able to see, he's just Austin to me, I've known him now for two years. And the students here have known him. He's been in this county forever. And so the students know who he is and they just treat him like one of the rest of them. Um, so when I was working with him, it never really crossed my mind that he couldn't see the pieces the same way that we do. And, uh, when we got, I remember specifically it was the ammonia molecule, and I'll looked at an ammonia molecule the same, but he built an ammonia molecule. And the feedback from the device confirmed that he had built it. And it sounds a little sappy, but I truly did get a tear in my eye thinking I just, I just taught this kid who has never seen an ammonia molecule before by just taught him what an ammonia molecule actually looks like.
Michelle Thompson (11:32):
That it has a central atom of nitrogen with three hydrogens around it and a lone pair of electrons on nitrogen. And that made that so real for him. And I know from talking with Austin, that pictures are imprinted in his mind. And once he sees something, he doesn't, he never loses that picture. He never loses that visual image. I've even mentioned that in class about Austin. Do you see this?, and I've had a couple of students say, "You know, Dr. Thompson, he doesn't see", and I've been very quick to say, but he does see. He just sees differently than the way we do. What's great about Cassie is that it's helping the students see in a way that they can see. He just sees through his hands, which is different. And truthfully, we all use all of our senses. If we have all of them, we use all of our senses to see something. We don't just look at the water bottle. That's sitting on my desk and think of that's a water bottle. No, you know, we see color. And, and when we feel it, we feel that it's cold. And so we're taking in those other senses to make those imprints of images, he just does it differently.
Not being able to see doesn't preclude our visual senses, blind students can see, can visualize things. They just, as you said, just do it differently. And we're really happy that it helped, and hopefully, we'll be able to expand the system. Your Scientific research class, tell me a little bit about what they do.
Michelle Thompson (12:49):
The Scientific Research classes are a little different. The state of Georgia has some standards, some loose standards, but there are standards for scientific research and they came out of one of the schools up near the Atlanta area. That's really focused on scientific research. So these students would come out of these classes with very high-level science skills, being able to basically work in any lab. We chose here. When we started our STEM program to run that program a little differently, we have what's called an interdisciplinary scientific research class. I had the opportunity to write the curriculum for these courses that we teach. So everything that we do is not just taught through a science perspective. It's taught through at least two of the four tenants of STEM, but if we're doing something that's science, we also have a strong math component next to it. If engineering is the driver, then there may be a technology component that's there. So it's different than just having a science class. It's not like an additional science class, even though it's coded under science. It's not just like a science lab class.
I taught International Baccalaureate and IB. It's very similar to some of the work we had to do inside of the IB curriculum. I think that's really interesting that you've done it on your own without all that, that requirement that comes with IB teaching, but I interrupted you. I'll let you go.
Michelle Thompson (14:03):
It's okay. It's okay. So, I think that model fits nicely with what we're trying to get at with STEM education. Again, looking I've already mentioned, looking at problems from a holistic point of view that I had this conversation actually with my husband the other night. And he said, well, how do your humanity teachers feel? Because they're not part of STEM. And I went into a long discussion, which I will not take up our time here, but essentially humanities is the glue. So if you think about it this way, you know, you have science and math. Those are the fundamental skills they're only in you of technology and engineering is where you're applying things, but your humanities is the why, it's the communication piece. It's the play space if you want to think of it that way in science and math, we do like project-based stuff and technology and engineering.
Michelle Thompson (14:44):
We do problem-based stuff, but in humanities, when we tie it all together, we're doing place-based stuff. And so that's what we're doing in our research classes. My class this year, we always try to take on some kind of grand challenge, something that is affecting the world globally, but how can we act locally to help solve a global problem? Right now, my research class is looking at the water crisis. We always call them a crisis, but you know, we don't have a problem with the amount of water in our world, but we do have a problem with the quality of water we take for granted that I can turn on the sink in my lab room and there's clean water, but not everybody can do that. So my students right now, we're actually working with a project with, with Georgia Tech, through a curriculum challenge that they have put out to try to look at different ways of using nanotechnology to purify water.
Michelle Thompson (15:30):
So my students started this week and they made a water filter out of basically just junk that we found around my lab to show that, yeah, you can make it cleaner, but you don't want to drink it. Right? So the past couple of days we've been looking at nanotechnology as a potential way of cleaning water. And so today in the lab actually made silver nanoparticles, which was really neat, but it ties back to chemistry because it was a single replacement reaction. And with copper and silver nitrate, we are growing them right now and tomorrow, we're going to look at them underneath the microscope and then talk about a cost-benefit analysis. That's where our economics comes in and we can talk about government policy and how we can't just have these hard metals floating around in our water, anybody? Flint, Michigan?. So we've definitely talked about that too.
Michelle Thompson (16:14):
It's looking at these problems from a much larger perspective. I Effingham County owns a 324-acre farm Agra center. And we have two ponds on this farm. One is used for irrigation for crops, and one is used for a watering hole for our cattle that's out there. And so our ultimate goal is to design and build an underwater ROV that will test the water quality of those ponds out at Honey Ridge, our Agricenter it's taken us, you know, why, why are we doing this? Why do we care about water quality? Okay. Cause that's the global problem, but then how are we going to look at that from a local perspective? So looking at our ponds at Honey Ridge would be our local, and how we're, you know, wanting to make sure that that water is safe. It's safe for irrigation and that it's safe for our cattle.
Michelle Thompson (17:00):
So that's those research classes every year. It's a new challenge. I've done the energy crisis and we've looked at different types of energy and compared them, we've partnered with one of our energy groups in town and all of our students do some sort of symposium at the end of the semester where they showcase their knowledge. This past semester, we did kind of like a shark tank format where students had to compete for the best ROV design. But the feedback that we get from our students and from the public, that comes into listen, is how do these students know so much? You know, so many times people will come in and say, I feel so dumb compared to these kids like there are these 15-year-old kids that are talking circles around a particular topic. You know, as the mama bear, that makes me feel good.
Well, you are quite inspirational. I think about, I would love to be a 15-year-old in your class and doing those kinds of things because it just seems so, so refreshing to look at problems from multiple perspectives for critical thinking, and then I love the piece about communication. I would love to tell your students that sometimes as a product founder or a company, founder, all I do is write, all I do is write and speak. So if I can't write and speak, I can't communicate the importance of a product. So I love that this, this well-rounded holistic piece that you're building into your curriculum. So we're almost out of time here. It's March of 2021. It's going on a year since this COVID crisis has hit the world. What are you looking forward to when we come back to quote-unquote normal? Is there something that you just are waiting to do?
Michelle Thompson (18:43):
I'm very eager to have my students be able to present again in public forums. That's something that I think they've really missed. There's a great thing to be said about virtual and in presenting and this, you know, we're able to meet through zoom links now and that's amazing, but they miss that having strangers stand in front of them and just grill them about their topic. And because we've had to limit contact with outsiders, we haven't had that opportunity. So really looking forward to that, I can say a positive about all of this experience. I am so much, well more well-versed in technology now, and being able to, I'm so much more comfortable with recording myself on video and putting those videos out that I was not this time last year at all. So there have certainly been some, while there's been challenges to teaching in this virtual world, there have certainly been some positives to come out of it as well.
That's good. I like to end on a positive note and I have to say thank you from the bottom of Alchemie's heart for working with us in our research. And we're looking forward to, including you as Kasi grows, take care, and let's keep in touch.
Michelle Thompson (19:57):
Absolutely. Thank you so much for this opportunity.
Thank you for listening to Ideas That Matter. Alchemie is launching a Kickstarter to support the production and further development of the Kasi project to become a backer visit, www.alchem.ie/kasi for more information. Be a part of our growing community and join the discussion by following us @LearnAlchemie on Instagram and Twitter. This podcast was created and published by Alchemie edited by Liz Gross, produced by Typhany Jones, and narrated by Gianna Manchester.