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Science and Innovations

Teachers Get Creative To Fund Hands-On Science

Melissa Sevigny

Science education is supposed to be messy, hands-on, and experimental. It’s about blasting off model rockets or cooking up trays of homemade slime. But the supplies and equipment needed for that kind of education aren’t easy to come by in Arizona’s public schools. Even in the wake of the #RedforEd movement, Arizona’s per-pupil spending remains thousands of dollars below the national average. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, science educators in Flagstaff are finding creative ways to fill the gap.

Tynkertopia is tucked into a strip mall on Fourth Street. The nonprofit is basically a mad science laboratory for kids.

Retired science teacher Alice Christie is the founder and she funds Tynkertopia from her own pocket. “There’s all sorts of materials around for kids to build with, play with, explore,” she says.

Credit Melissa Sevigny
Alice Christie

The long room is crammed with puzzles, microscopes, and woodworking tools. A family with a young child rolls different types of racecars down a track. Christie shows a four-year-old girl how to print a swirl of colors onto a piece of paper with water and ink.

“Can I try it by myself now?” the girl asks.

“You may try it all by yourself!” Christie replies.

Christie created this space because she knows how limited science and state funding can be in public schools. Only half of the nation’s fourth graders do hands-on science activities at least once a week.

Christie says, “I think parents are bringing their kids to Tynkertopia because they know it’s a space where there are no right and wrong answers, there’s no pressure to pass a test. They value hands on experiential learning.”

That kind of learning can be tough to fit into a school’s budget. At Killip Elementary, science is integrated into every subject. Sheryl Wells is the school’s science coordinator. She says when the second graders wanted to build a pond, they applied for a grant themselves.

Wells says, “For the PowerPoint they had teams of photographers, they had teams of editors, they had teams of writers. Then they presented it as a whole grade level.”

Credit Melissa Sevigny
An activity at Tynkertopia

They got the money. Kids now spent time at the pond to learn about more than just science. They count fish to practice math or build model sailboats for a lesson on the history of world exploration. Wells says the best way to learn the parts of a flower, for example, is to plant one.

She says, “When they just look at a bubble test and go, ‘here’s the stem, here’s the leaf,’ that doesn’t have as much meaning to them as being there and touching it and feeling it.”

Student-driven projects are also the heart of an afterschool science club at Sinagua Middle School.  On a chemistry bench, 12-year-old Powell Nash-Hayes cooks up a tray of lollipops. “So what it is, basically a combination of sugar, cornstarch and water,” he explains.

Other kids work on a hovercraft, a music sheet turner, even a fish transporter. Kate Green and Hannah Hardesty jerry-rig a circuit board onto a skateboard to make it remote-controlled.  “We’re not really following a recipe, we’re just kind of doing whatever,” Green says. Hardesty adds, “It’s building by ourselves, so it’s not really teacher instructed. We can do our own thing.”

Science teacher Jillian Worssam says that’s the whole point. “I don’t teach by the book,” she says. “I teach by the inquiry. That takes money.”

T9: Worssam relies on donations and grants. She got 500 dollars from Arizona Public Service this year to buy model rocket parts, food grade silicon for the lollipops, and ingredients for slime. She wants to encourage a trail-and-error method, no matter how expensive it is for her.  

“I don’t let it stop me, I spent a lot of money in my classroom myself every single year because this is how I was trained to teach,” Worssam says.

Her students are learning how to solve problems on their own… small ones now, like the best lollipop recipe. But Worssam says one day they’ll engineer the solutions to the world’s big problems, too. That makes everything she spends in science class a good investment.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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