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Summer school for science teachers

Working on a shake table in the College of Arts and Sciences' Machine Shop are, from left, John Nowak, Angelo Muscarella, Jeff Walter, Kevin Cullinan, Alex Ticoalu and Rich Rittling. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published October 3, 2013

“Science is very creative.”
Jeff Walter, science teacher
Bennett High School

“That one’s my baby,” says Burgard High School earth science teacher Angelo Muscarella.

It’s an early summer morning in August, and he’s pointing to a mini earthquake-simulation table in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Instrument Machine Shop on the first floor of Fronczak Hall.

Muscarella worked with UB graduate students Alex Ticoalu and Mike Habberfield to design the device, first sketching the 18-by-18-inch contraption by hand and then drawing some components on a computer.

The resulting product: a square platform that moves along three axes when users turn a manual crank.

Muscarella plans to bring the gadget into his high school science class, where teenagers will use it to test how various structures and soils hold up to strong shaking.

The creation of the earthquake-simulation table was one of many projects that middle and high school teachers completed at UB, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Life Technologies and Praxair this summer through the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership (ISEP).

The goal of the $10 million program is to improve the quality of science education in Buffalo Public Schools. Participating teachers get training and resources, including regular, in-class help from UB graduate and undergraduate students during the school year.

Buffalo Public School science teachers work in the research lab of Gerald Koudelka in Cooke Hall. From left: Jill Jakubowicz, Jackie Nelson, Gerald Koudelka and Tara Hogan. Photo: Douglas Levere

The summer research projects are meant to give teachers a taste of what’s happening in real-world labs today so that they can pass along the latest scientific knowledge and methods to their classes.

This year, 52 ISEP teachers took part.

In the Natural Sciences Complex, Dan Hildreth from South Park High School worked with UB chemistry PhD candidate Robert Dennis to test whether water filters made from a remarkable material called graphene could remove heavy metals like chromium from water.

In a moment of serendipity, Tara Hogan, a senior studying biological sciences and psychology, was assigned to work with Jacqueline Nelson, Hogan’s former science teacher at Hutchinson Central Technical High School (Hutch Tech).

“I got accepted into the honors biology program for my senior year at UB, and Professor Gerald Koudelka mentioned that he was part of this grant that furthers education in the city of Buffalo and that two high school teachers were coming to work in his lab. As it turns out, one was Mrs. Nelson, whom I actually had as my teacher.”

Working with Hogan, Nelson and Hutch Tech teacher Jill Jakubowicz took samples of water from Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, and identified the species of bacteria present using DNA-analysis techniques including PCR—polymerase chain reactions.

“We were looking for pretty much anything that is E. coli-containing, anything that can cause human disease, indicating there may be fecal matter,” Hogan said. “During the school year, the students at Hutch Tech are going to end up doing the same kind of testing with DNA amplification.”

Michael Gallisdorfer, a PhD student in geography who works in Buffalo schools through ISEP, said the best summer projects provide teachers with skills and resources they can actually use in class.

Toward that end, Gallisdorfer spent the summer helping middle school teachers from Southside Elementary develop lessons that incorporate geographic information systems (GIS), which scientists use to map, analyze and display data. The team designed exercises asking sixth-graders to use Google Earth and Google Maps to explore local geography and take “virtual field trips” to locations around the world. These projects will teach kids about topography, map-reading and other concepts in cartography.

Muscarella and Bennett High School teachers John Nowak, Jeff Walter and Rich Rittling, who all designed earthquake-simulation tables, said their new devices will definitely be put to work in the classroom this year.

In August, they ran a series of demonstrations for Channel 2 reporter Heather Ly, who was on campus to do a story on ISEP.

Placing a Tupperware container full of wet sand atop Muscarella’s shake table, the teachers turned the crank, causing the container to rock up and down and side to side. A brick representing a building quickly sank into the sand, while water bubbled to the top—a phenomenon called liquefaction that mirrors what engineers see in real life, Rittling said.

Science aside, the whole thing looks fun: the rattling noise the metal platform makes as it pitches and rolls, the brick falling over, the water rising up. So cool.

“It’s under 500 bucks, you can’t break it—there’s no motors—and with the crank, the kids can run it themselves,” Muscarella said.

“We can have the kids come up with their own ideas, make a building that’s a ball or a cone, and see how it holds up,” he added.

“You could put a pill bottle under the ground, slip it under the sand to represent a gas tank, and see if it comes back up,” Rittling said.

“It gets the students to think outside of the box—to think about how different types of structures and soils can withstand earthquakes,” Walter said. “Science is very creative.”

ISEP teachers will present their summer research projects at a poster session from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Oct. 8 at the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute, 700 Ellicott St., Buffalo.

In addition to the 52 teachers who conducted research, another 23 participated in other summer professional development activities through ISEP.