A few months ago, I reached out to Dixon Butler, the founder and president of Youth Learning As Citizen Environmental Scientists (“YLACES”), to hear what some of his experiences have been as a lifelong advocate for youth mentoring and project-based mentoring. Dr. Butler has an incredible lifetime of achievements, not the least of which includes obtaining two degrees from Harvard University and two degrees from Rice University, managing several departments during his tenure at NASA, and serving under Vice President Al Gore to promote international K-12 environmental science education. Now that he is retired from federal service, he actively advises others while managing Butler Consulting and YLACES.

But I didn’t call to talk about Dr. Butler’s lifetime achievements, as impressive as they may be. I wanted to hear about some of his latest endeavors in Project Based Mentorship®, and the types of projects he was involved in. In so many words, Dr. Butler told me not to take it from him; he put me in touch with one of the outstanding teachers helping to realize these Project Based Mentorship® programs. And what a perfect introduction that was. I want to take this opportunity to report on the thrilling impact that Dr. Butler, YLACES, and that special middle school teacher, Mr. Jeff Bouwman, are having in our communities.

Jeff Bouwman teaches science at Shumate Middle School (Gibraltar School District) in Gibraltar, Michigan. Dr. Butler and Bouwman met as a result of a grant YLACES made to Shumate Middle School. Specifically, YLACES funded the installation of the first WeatherSTEM weather station in that state of Michigan, the Gibraltar School District WeatherSTEM. Bouwman uses this weather station to engage his students in some very exciting ways. When Bouwman told me about the various projects his kids are engaged in, and how he has tied the students’ coursework with real-life projects, community engagement, and global challenges, I was immediately impressed. It’s no surprise that Bouwman’s students are winning regional competitions and considering STEM careers in the long term.

Bouwman told me that he has been able to expose his students to numerous hands-on projects that not only put students in the field (literally), where they can see science as it is applied and personally observe and collect data; the students have also been sharing their results with scientists around the world, courtesy of the international GLOBE endeavor. GLOBE, a worldwide science and education program, allows students to share their observations and data with science institutions from 120+ participating countries, in effect giving the students opportunities to collaborate globally on climate change and other topics. By being involved in GLOBE, students learn that they can be part of something far greater than themselves.

Moreover, Bouwman makes sure the students are meeting and interacting with A-list mentors regularly to discuss their various projects. On nearly a weekly basis, Bouwman arranges for NASA, GLOBE, and local scientists to speak with the students, discussing a wide range of topics including the studies the students are performing and the correlation they have with the scientists’ work.

Bouwman detailed some of the data collection efforts his students are tasked with performing. You may recall your own middle school science teacher leading a class to measure the amount of rainfall on a particular day and comparing it to past data. This is not that class. Some of Bouwman’s projects include:

  • Measuring the salinity value of regional ponds
  • Measuring soil moisture for the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) campaign
  • Collecting surface temperatures at various points of interest in the region
  • Studying tree heights, and logging data with satellite and GPS location information
  • Observing mosquito breeding and the conditions that impact it
  • Taking integrative hydrology measurements, such as pH levels and the amount of dissolved O2 in ponds
  • Measuring clouds and contrails
  • Building robots and engaging with robotics projects
  • Remote sensing and taking aerial images via the AREN Project
  • Encouraging the protection – and in-class spawning – of important regional species of fish

In the last example, Bouwman says students witnessed the growth of both sturgeon and salmon in their classrooms, and then had the opportunity to release both into the wild through participation in Sturgeon for Tomorrow, a nonprofit dedicated to spawning sturgeon and salmon. Remarkably, and to the students’ delight, Bouwman recalled, two separate cycles of spawning and release gave students the rare opportunity to see two-headed salmon hatch and grow.

As if hands-on projects were not engaging enough, Bouwman uses a number of other tools and methods to maximize the attention and commitment of the students. Bouwman says he relies on Google Classroom for one of the hubs of learning in the classroom, and many of the speakers are brought to the classroom from hundreds of miles away via interactive video chats. With guidance from Bouwman and scientists, the students are responsible for drafting hypotheses, creating a plan, coming up with the details of execution, and reviewing what went wrong and what went right. Students prepare posters and eight-minute presentations. In some cases, students defend their research, just as someone would at a master’s level of education. The project-based mentors help with hypotheses, answer questions from students, and discuss how the results relate to actual work in the field.

Bouwman mentioned that the observations and data are not only used in global science efforts; local entities rely on it as well. Gibraltar city government and Gibraltar public services use the kids’ research, giving the students even more reasons to be proud of their work.

And as the students progress through the year, they gain skills and knowledge that allows them to participate in GLOBE’s International Virtual Science Symposium (IVSS), a virtual, online science fair where students compete with others around the world. Winners are offered a complimentary trip to the annual conference, where they present on their projects and findings.

What does Bouwman get from all of his hard work in engaging students and exposing them to real-life science? He says probably the greatest honor is hearing parents tell him how much their student loves science, or “I wish we had this ‘back in the day.’” And then there’s the joy he shares with students when they report back that “someone with amazing ‘street cred’” talked about their project. Those are the times he knows he has left a lasting impression.

As an active participant in social media, Bouwman told me he started the hashtag #GettingScienceDone, which he uses when posting pictures and results from the students’ endeavors. He smiles when one of his students replies, “we are getting science done!” And when I asked him what one of his favorite events to post is, he said “the aha moments” – like when one of his students was doing ground temperature measurements and observed statistically significant fluctuations. Then a lightbulb went off. “So … the clouds moved. And it looks like that changed our data, Mr. Bouwman.” Bouwman was pleased.

Fortunately, Bouwman’s dedication and hard work have not gone unnoticed. He also teaches classes at the University of Michigan – Dearborn’s College of Education Health and Human Services (CEHHS). And in 2018, he was chosen as Middle School Science Teacher of the Year. Additionally, Bouwman says, he feels rewarded when hard work pays off, like when his student robotics team qualifies to go to the state championship in Battle Creek, MI. That occurred just before I talked to him.

AnchorIt’s heartening to know there are teachers like Bouwman who are connecting the dots to the real world for their students, and who creatively inspire them through Project Based Mentoring®.