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Sourdough for Science: Part 10

May 23, 2019

By special guest blogger Erin McKenney, MS, PhD

Steps for developing a partnership

  • Meet in person to discuss the project, and find out what both parties need.
    • The professional currency for scientists is typically publication, though some researchers do outreach to satisfy the “Broader Impacts” requirement
    • Publishing research may help some teachers advance their career or prepare for a graduate degree; but many are looking for an exciting lesson plan that aligns to curriculum standards, and doesn’t take too much time or money.
  • Be transparent and realistic about the time and resources each participant can afford to spend on the project. A project that complements the curriculum, empowers students, and yields publishable data is a win-win-win, but it’s only possible if everyone is informed and 100% on board.
  • Plan to meet several times before, during, and after the project. Solicit feedback throughout, and make sure you have a mode of direct communication set up to help troubleshoot protocols in real-time. (Phone, text, VOIP, etc.)

Setting up a pilot program

If possible, arrange a small-scale trial run before increasing the scope to fledge your lesson plan from the lab to the classroom.

  • Year 1Try to limit your first attempt to one or two classes in a single school. If you can, visit the classroom; interacting with the students helps make the project feel personally relevant. If possible, you can add a second attempt in the same academic year (e.g., fall and spring semesters, or in a different class or school).
  • Year 2 – Now that you have a working model, you can expand to include additional classes or schools. Be sure to adjust the activity based on previous teacher feedback. If possible, develop additional materials to support curriculum standards.
  • Year 3 ­– By now, your project should run fairly smoothly, and you will have learned how to avoid major pitfalls. This year, you can try to engage teachers on a broader scale, and/or tweak your experimental design to test new hypotheses.

About the Pilot Program

Our original protocol was developed by my colleagues, Dr. Anne Madden and Leonora Shell, in the Dunn lab at NC State University.

Exploris (a charter school) has the flexibility to try out new things, so their teachers were critical for testing the “beta-version” of the original sourdough activity. One of their favorite stories to recount is the morning they discovered that all the students’ sourdough starters had overflowed their jars! Luckily, they were willing to take the time to clean up and chat with me about how to scale down the recipe to keep the sourdoughs growing but prevent future overflows. They were critical players in helping to make the project feasible for other schools.

Moore Square was next to try and they faced a new set of challenges. The students had to share resources across groups, so every day they struggled to complete their tasks within the class period. Their teacher still had to meet other curriculum standards, so they were only able to collect three of 10 days’ worth of data.

Based on both schools’ experiences that first year, I collected “best practices” from each teacher and made the following changes to the activity for 2019:

  • I experimented in my own kitchen at home to scale the size of the starter from a quart jar down to a half-pint jar. The smaller jar is easier for children to handle and easier to stir with a plastic spoon. It also requires a fraction of the flour, which, together with smaller, cheaper jars, left more budget to buy materials for each group, and nobody had to share. With a full supply kit for each group, teachers can pre-set their classrooms and students can complete their measurements much more quickly. (Details: In fact, it’s so much more efficient that students at Ligon middle school (the new addition this spring) were able to complete the project in their homeroom period, instead of during their science class. This strategy makes educational use of an otherwise “wasted” period, without interfering with teachers’ science classes.)
  • I also created additional materials requested by teachers to align with curriculum standards, including a and YouTube videos about how to create and maintain a sourdough starter.

My hope in sharing the “evolution” of this citizen science activity is to give an inside perspective on its execution and improvement, to help teachers feel prepared for potential challenges in advance, and for them to feel empowered to troubleshoot and adapt the activity to each classroom’s unique needs and limitations. Citizen science can certainly take extra effort, but I think it is also absolutely worth it.

Suggestions for funding

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