Surfing with Sharks

img_1691In January, the fifth grade ACT students got busy diving into their exciting new learning exploration; and I’m quite pleased to report it goes much deeper than that popular earworm song that has swept the nation!

They were introduced to their ‘Surfing with Sharks’ unit and transformed themselves into Icthyologists (ik-thee-OL-o-jist). ACT Teacher, Dr. Julie Clark, aims to provide a rich environment of full immersion in their topic and these few weeks of being a “person who studies sharks” has been an exciting and engaging experience for all. Not to mention, this is an opportunity that most students wouldn’t have exposure to until high school or college!

One of the first activities included “adopting a shark” from the Ocearch website to track and watch throughout the unit. The class also read the book, Shark Lady, a true story that highlights the life and work of Eugenie Clark, a renowned ichthyologist known for both her research on shark behavior and her dedication to changing the common misconceptions people have about sharks. 

This was a great way to lay the groundwork of learning about these fascinating, and often misunderstood, creatures. After spending some time introducing their “adopted” sharks to the class through a short Google Slides presentation, the students enjoyed an opportunity to watch an Eyewitness movie about sharks in class.img_1689

Taking their research a little bit deeper, the students set off to learn about a specific species of shark and create a Weebly website on which to display what they learn. They also used Khan Academy to begin some computer coding lessons; skills they would use to include their own animation that they create using Java Script.

Current events informed the unit as well; students recently watched this news story about how research into the shark genome is helping scientists with cancer research. They have 50% more DNA than we do, and because of this, the shark’s DNA is constantly repairing itself to prevent gene mutations that can cause disease, like cancer. Helping students to see the relevance of their study and connecting those learnings to real life inspires students to become activists and learn more.

Screen Shot 2019-02-28 at 5.09.02 AMThe shining moment of wearing the Icthyologist ‘hat’, is the dissection at the end of the unit. In order to be prepared for this, the class spent time learning about the external and internal anatomy of the dogfish shark (Squalus acanthias). To start, the students learned about the anatomical directions that scientists and those in the medical field use when referring to different areas of an organism’s body. Then spent time exploring the shark’s internal, external anatomy and special sensing mechanisms (helping them detect movements in the water). Students were also challenged to put together a three-dimensional model showing the various internal organs. All of this laying the groundwork for a successful dissection.


img_1690Dr. Clark loves to push the comfort level of her students in the name of learning new things,  and for some, dissection day itself was a challenging experience. As the classroom transformed into a laboratory, she takes the opportunity to remind the class of the ACT theme this year: Challenge Accepted!…being committed to finding learning in all experiences, and ultimately, if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you. The challenge was accepted and curiosity took over.

All of the shark specimens that were dissected were females, thus, students learn about reproduction in these animals as well. Spiny Dogfish sharks are ovoviviparous — meaning that the embryo develops from an egg inside the mother and is nourished by the yolk sac, not the mother, but the mother still has a live birth.  With parent volunteer helpers, the students took their knowledge and identified the body parts they had studied and were so excited to find the surprise of little shark pups when they were dissecting! One group found 5 baby shark pups! As sharks do not chew their food – students also discovered a fully intact fish! After they completed the students could also do some extra exploration on the gills and eyeballs.


Intact Fish – Baby Shark (Doo Doo) – Yolk Sac


I am thankful for devoted educators like Dr. Clark, who strive to open the minds of students to an array of learning possibilities, while challenging them to grow academically, socially, and emotionally. Our academically talented students are constantly provided learning opportunities that present them with the chance to explore, create, problem solve, and above all, try new things. I am so pleased that we have continued to invest in providing unique and thought-provoking learning opportunities for these children. It is always very exciting to see what she has going on in her classroom. Learn more about ACT here.


High School Girls Champion STEM for Elementary Students!


Peyton Benac with a Pinewood STEM student!

In the fall of 2014 Chemistry teacher Alice Putti had good reason to be impressed. She had been approached by two of her former students, sophomores at the time, who wanted to start a club for high school girls to visit Jenison Elementary schools and do STEM lessons. [STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics]

Peyton Benac and Alex Stockholm wanted to take their interest and passion in STEM education to younger girls but they knew they’d need faculty support and financial assistance to do it. But their goal to inspire and encourage students who like the STEM subjects motivated them to move forward and thanks to a grant from the Jenison Education Foundation they were able to launch their group!

They began meeting with other interested high school girls to discuss possible lessons and experiments and getting their hands dirty as they made prototypes. “We tried to get activities from all the STEM fields like math puzzles and an engineering challenge.” says Peyton.  The group visited each elementary school once this fall and 4 – 6 high school students lead the groups of younger students which has varied from 10 – 30 girls!  When one young student was asked her favorite part of STEM she quickly replied “math” but after doing an experiment with conductive play-doh she said, “I like science too.”

Peyton has been involved with Junior High and High School Science Olympiad and she would like to pursue a career in science education. Speaking of her experience on the Science Olympiad team, “I remember being a seventh grade girl and wishing there were role models. The problem isn’t that girls are less interested or less talented but they try it once and it’s weird, none of their friends are there, it’s uncomfortable, there’s no role models. So we wanted to create a program that would open that door for them and make it seem a little less scary.”

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Sandy Hill Girls in STEM!

In preparation for their presentations the team watched “a lot of TED Talks from women who have succeeded in STEM fields talking about what they went through when they were younger. We read parts of “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg talking about finding success in male dominated fields  and I think that gave us the background to want to do this with the elementary girls. We thought that we could provide that role model and tell them that we passionately love STEM and we think you should too…”  Ultimately, the group would love to see more female students stick it out in Science Olympiad, Robotics , AP Computer Science, AP Calculus or AP Stats.

Mrs Putti says that “from the beginning I was incredibly impressed when they came to me with this idea, to have the vision and goals they had and I thought, not only do I want to be supportive of you because you’re my students, but your goals are incredibly mature goals.”  In Jenison High School there are “more women taking life science classes such as Earth science and biology rather than physics or chemistry. There are less women in math and computer science than there are in sciences.”  With the new focus on STEM education teachers are hopeful that these numbers will change.  “I think the fact that they are being introduced to it early that is important. When we talk to girls at our STEM club meetings there are a lot of them that are excited about STEM but I would guess that at that level  those kids would have been excited about those subjects anyway. Our goal is to keep them excited.”

Peyton wants to encourage parents and other adults invested in girls’ lives to be thoughtful in how they are encouraged. “I think that everyone should be conscious of the passion that these young girls have for STEM and especially if they have young daughters to see that as kind of the best thing.”

If you’d like to encourage an elementary girl to attend the next STEM meeting please check out this flyer for the details and where to sign up!

Or if you’d like to find out how you can contribute to continuing the work of the Girls STEM Club in Jenison next year please contact Alice Putti: for information on their forthcoming Go Fund Me account!

Thank you to Alex, Peyton and Mrs Putti for being the role models our young girls need! We are so grateful that you pursued your goals and are investing in our future STEM leaders!


Pinewood Girls try to crack the code with a little encouragement from their high school mentor!


Rosewood Girls in STEM hard at work!


Pinewood girls conquer the engineering challenge!

It’s Not Your Mom’s Anatomy + Physiology Class!

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Melanie Zuber [far left] assists students with a dissection.

Once upon a time we dissected frogs and worms to learn about anatomy and the systems that make us work but these days, the students at Jenison High School are digging a little deeper.  Cow eyes, lamb brains, sheep kidneys and pig hearts are all on the menu…in a manner of speaking.

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A dissected pig heart gets identified by a student.

Students in grades 10 – 12 who have completed Biology are eligible to take this college-prep class.  9th grade students who have done especially well in Biology are encouraged to take Anatomy + Physiology in their sophomore year as a pre cursor for AP Biology junior or senior year.
Teacher Melanie Zuber says that most students enrolled in the class are interested in medical practices such as nursing, sports medicine, veterinarians, EMTs, athletic trainers, doctors, etc.  But a number of students also register for the class because they are unsure of a future career and are exploring their options.  Says Melanie, “I encourage this for many reasons.  First, it is a great college prep class for all college-bound students.  Second, it teaches students about the human body and no matter what, there couldn’t be a more relevant topic to each of us.  Think about the number of times you’ve been to the doctors and you just wish you knew a little more about what they were saying.  You go home and look up a condition that a friend just said they have and you don’t understand the description fully.  Even for students interested in engineering, think of all the great medical technologies that have been engineered (artificial hearts, robotic surgical arms, cochlear implants, artificial joints, forehead thermometers, etc].”

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Students use colored pins to identify the various parts of this cow’s eye.

One highlight of the class is, of course, the hands-on experience that comes with dissections.  “Since this class is an elective, students who have chosen to take the course know it is a requirement and already have an interest in doing the dissections.  Students are often amazed at how different the dissections are from virtual examples and practice images/diagrams that they look at before dissecting.  I enjoy the level of student questions and engagement that comes from doing the dissections.  We dissect a pig heart, cow’s eye, sheep brain, sheep kidney, we also dissect the cat doing an extensive study of the muscles form and function.  At the end of the year we continue to use the cat to dissect the internal chest and abdominal cavity to observe the complexity of the organs and systems working together.

MIII1337 copyAgain, being a college preparatory class, most students going into the health related careers will need to perform tasks much more difficult than animal dissections.  I have some students already observing human cadavers their freshman year in college, so I know the techniques and skills along with the realist value is extremely important to their educational preparation.  We do use a lot of virtual diagrams and applications where appropriate, but without a doubt, the laboratory dissections and laboratory exams provide a necessary component to their education in this field.”  [Ms. Zuber also stresses that “the specimens we obtain come from reputable biological supply companies.  No animals are farmed for the purpose of our dissections, but instead the food industry byproducts or euthanized cats are being repurposed for educational gains.”  She uses this component of the class as an opportunity to discuss organ donation with her students.]

MIII1453 copyScience and education are obvious passions for Ms Zuber who has been an educator for 15 years and in Jenison for the past seven years. Beginning in High School when she volunteered at Hudsonville Nursing Home and what would eventually become Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, she knew that “working with kids, science and health was a must!”  She majored in biology at University of Michigan and, with an emphasis on premed, planned to go to medical school until an educational psychology class derailed her original plan.  However, she wasn’t always encouraged to pursue this route.  “It became apparent to me that education was where I was headed, but I was constantly being persuaded by others to be something other than “just a teacher.”  Well, being the individual that I am, I knew in my heart that educating was not “just a job”, but instead is among one of the most important professions, and a profession where I could have a little bit of everything that I wanted.”  Ms. Zuber’s husband, Philip, also teaches in the JHS science department and after some time working in the GVSU labs she jumped at the chance to join him here.

While dissection may not be for everyone, it’s easy to see why students love this class and are being exceptionally prepared for their futures — wherever they may find themselves!

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A sheep’s brain waits its turn for identification and examination.

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Students are encouraged to use their own cell phones in class to take pictures of specimens for later study.


JJHS “Races” to Promote Hands-On Learning

Jenison Junior High, scienceWhen Jenison Junior High School eighth graders opened the door on a new year of science at the junior high, they weren’t expecting to design cars with minty wheels powered with balloons. But that kind of hands-on learning comes standard for lessons in Mrs. Molenkamp’s classroom.

After a summer of relaxing and experiencing the inertia of bodies jumping into water, Mrs. Molenkamp says that beginning the year with an activity like this gets kids to think like scientists again. It helps them get back into the swing of working in groups and problem solving with new classmates in new settings.

“We pick an activity so they’re laughing and creating and getting to know their neighbors at the same time. That’s why we build cars right away–to get them involved and reinforce the message that science is fun,” said Mrs. Molenkamp.

Last year eighth graders also made balloon rockets and Cheerio shooters to encourage problem solving and design elements that are reminiscent of engineering. Jonathan Busard (8th grader), agreed:

“This is so fun! I want to be an engineer someday so this is the best activity for me! I really liked having to problem solve and reevaluate our design. Our first attempt to race our car was a total failure, but we kept going until we had a car that would actually do what we wanted it to. It was fun to see our hard work pay off!”

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Students were given just two breath mints, tape, one balloon, straws and a tongue depressor. They were charged with trying to figure out not only how to build a car, but how to build a fast car. They asked questions like:

  • Where is the best location to place the balloon?
  • Where should the wheels go?
  • Does this wheel placement make the car veer off to one side or go straight?
  • Do I even need all of these resources?

Aside from team building, the goals of this lesson were for students to persevere during the (sometimes) frustrating stages of problem solving while successfully working together. But perhaps more importantly, students discuss real world applications and connections between what’s happening on the lab table and what’s happening in design firms across the country.

“Problem solving makes its way into all sorts of careers,” said Mrs. Molenkamp. “If you think about it, this is similar to how cars are made in real life: cars are designed and redesigned. They’re built and tested and retested. So mini-projects like this show students that there’s a reason we want them to take ownership of their learning. It’s because they’ll be asked to do these same kinds of things –but on a larger scale– someday in their careers.”

Thanks to all the budding scientists at Jenison Junior High for letting us watch you “race” to science discovery!

Jenison Junior High School

Jenison Junior High School

Jenison Junior High Works to Curb Invasive Species

Jenison Junior High Students give back to the community.

What began at Michigan State University as the research and prevention of another invasive species, has sprawled into an opportunity for students to become environmental stewards and active community members.

Last week, over seventy-five students and a handful of teachers led by Mrs. Graham made their way to Hager Park and spent the after-school hours scouring the brush and wooded trails for Garlic Mustard: an invasive weed threatening to overtake native Michigan plants and flowers.

First brought to “the New World” by Europeans to season their food, Garlic Mustard is edible, but it also monopolizes the resources other plants need to grow and flourish. It additionally releases a toxin into the soil that is harmful to other nearby species. Michigan’s lovely Trillium is one example of a flower suffering at the hands of this unwelcome forest neighbor.

A Jenison student removes an armful of Garlic Mustard.

Jenison Schools were first made aware of the opportunity to help control this species when Melanie Manion, an Ottawa County Parks staffer, contacted Mrs. White at our high school and suggested Hager Park as a place to make a difference. The benefits of proximity and community were not lost; Mrs. White’s ecology class conducted field work as part of an invasive species project this past fall.

Eager to offer junior high students the opportunity to apply their biology lessons to real-life environmental situations, Mrs. Graham collaborated with Mrs. White to form what is now a 3-year partnership between Ottawa County Parks and JPS. 

“We’ve committed to limit invasives as much as possible,” Mrs. Graham explained.  A difficult task, to be sure, considering that each plant holds an estimated 3,000 seeds!

[Students L to R]: Brianna Weaver, Kayleigh Weaver, Hannah Veltman, Carol Ayers

Students are able to walk to Hager after school, bags in tow and hands ready to pull by the root. One students shared that she “…used to go to Hager Park a lot and didn’t want to see it overrun.” Others, including Hannah and Carol in the above photo, used the afternoon to take pictures for the Photography Club and hone their skills in a wooded setting with shadows and light.

Regardless of why they came, everyone pitched in and the group left with 23 huge bags filled with the plant! 

That means that Hager Park is inching closer to the natural state we love and want to preserve.

It means that our students are applying classwork to the work they do with their hands; it means they’re making our planet their laboratory.

And that, friends, is science at its best.

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Thank you to all the teachers involved in making this partnership a success, and to Mrs. Hunt, of the JJHS Photography Club, for the photos. Additionally, kudos to the group from Pinewood Elementary who successfully pulled one bag of Garlic Mustard from the park!

Lexi Kapla & Kimmie Hammink Haul plants from the Hager trail.