Spotlight on Middle School Educator Julie Wilson

Julie Wilson teaches 7th and 8th grade science at Boynton Middle School in Ithaca, NY. Her curriculum focuses on both the life sciences and physical sciences, through which she interweaves creative problem solving and engineering challenges for her students. Recently, Julie has jumpstarted a SWENext club at her school.
Julie Wilson Experimenting

Background

Spotlight on Middle School Educator Julie WilsonInspired by a family friend, Julie always knew that she wanted to pursue a career related to science, a demonstration of the important impact role models can have in the STEM disciplines. With this goal in mind, Julie attended the University of California, Berkeley where she studied genetics and plant biology. She soon developed a love for gardening and worked in the green house, but it wasn't until her last semester at UC Berkeley when she enrolled in an education course that she discovered her interest in teaching. After graduation, Julie continued her journey towards becoming a science teacher as she moved cross-country and pursued her Masters of Education at Boston University. Soon after, Julie was able to combine her interest in plant science with her passion for teaching as she became a life science educator.

The Importance of Teaching Engineering in K-12

Julie believes that engineering teaches essential problem solving skills that are very relevant to our technologically focused world. A lot of children are not exposed to engineering at an early age. Although students take many science courses in K-12, they rarely have the opportunity to take engineering courses in which they can develop the skills to creatively problem solve and design and build 3D materials. Julie's goal in incorporating engineering in her classroom is to inspire her students to continue on to study engineering or to at least be aware of the subject and its importance. Overall, Julie says that engineering is really exciting for her students and that both she and her class find it a lot of fun!

Engineering and the Life Sciences: An Exciting Curriculum

Spotlight on Middle School Educator Julie WilsonJulie admits that incorporating engineering into middle school life science and physical science classes is challenging. Although the subjects may not traditionally be taught together, Julie has combined her background and passions to develop many fun and relevant projects for her students. By combining her curriculum with engineering projects, Julie feels that the science becomes very real for her students as they are able to relate their studies to challenges in their own communities. Recently, Julie has put a tasked her students with the challenge of constructing a windmill. She has even added an additional design constraint that requires that the windmills float. With this project Julie emphasizes the design process by encouraging her students to get creative with the materials they will use as they brainstorm designs, test their contraptions, and improve upon their results. To emphasize the relevancy of this project, Julie shows her class videos of the impacts that windmills and renewable energy can have on communities and even encourages recyclable materials.

Julie continues to incorporate engineering as she teaches about the structure of cells. One of the projects in Julie's life science class is to build a 3D model of a cell. While some might remember this as a traditional project and a sort of rite of passage for the middle school biologist, Julie adds a unique and modern twist. While offering the option of building a traditional physical cell model, Julie also allows her students to design a computer model or incorporate computer aspects from programs such as Scratch into their models. Aside from incorporating technology and coding, Julie stresses the importance of planning and collaboration as she asks her students to acquire feedback from partners throughout the design and construction of their models.

When teaching plant structures, Julie carries on with the engineering theme. Julie tasks her students with the challenge of constructing the most efficient plant possible out of paper, making a friendly competition out of the project. As students design their plants, they are required to think critically about the shapes and sizes of leafs and stems necessary to carry out photosynthesis efficiently. Once the structures are built, the students collect data on their plant's photosynthesis process and a winner is determined.

Some key resources that Julie uses to develop her curriculum include code.org, PhET Simulations, along with many Howard Hughes resources and several educator list serves.

SWENext at Boynton Middle School

Outside of usual school hours, Julie has been working to establish a SWENext club at her school. Although there have only been 3 meetings so far, Julie describes the club as "tons of fun." With the help of the Cornell University SWE Section, Julie has had the support she has needed to get the club running. The college students act as great peer mentors to her students as they motivate the middle schoolers to learn more about engineering and personify the possibilities for women in STEM fields. So far the club's activities have included sling shot rockets and an interactive math lesson on constructing Sierpinski triangles. Julie's ultimate goal is to have the club participate in an outdoor rocket launch in Rochester, NY this spring. Although she has faced challenges in finding a meeting time that works with students' busy schedules, Julie knows that there is a large interest in the club and hopes to expand the club in the following years.

Words of Advice

Julie's main words of wisdom? Make sure you're interested in the activities you're doing. If your passion is missing, students easily pick up on that and it impacts their excitement to learn. Secondly, if things don't work perfectly the first time, it's okay. Students learn from their mistakes when they don't get it right the first time. Julie reminisces on her lemon clock lesson as an "epic failure," but says that the students enjoyed coming up with their own ideas to solve the problem and perhaps learned more in the long run. In the end, it's all about having fun!