Our Journey to Find a STEM Unsung Hero
By Sarah Vann, 2014 Lowell Milken Center Fellow & 2011 Milken Educator
My 8th grade Physical Science classroom is buzzing with activity on a daily basis between labs, phenomenon driven investigations, and analysis of scientific data. It is a daily goal to try to make science come to life for my students. I want them to not only learn the content, but also be curious about the world around them and learn to embrace new and challenging information. I want them to ask questions, think critically, and be able to dig and find valid information.
Of course, there are other outside expectations as well. In Oklahoma, science is a tested subject in 8th grade, and the test is something I constantly have in the back of my mind because I want to set my student up for success by the time it rolls around in April. So when I was asked to be a Lowell Milken Center Fellow and learned about the Unsung Hero projects, I was inspired to somehow bring this type of project-based learning back to my students. It is challenging to get all of the science standards covered in the academic year, so I decided to offer the Unsung Hero Projects as a before school group. I made student applications and pitched the idea to all of my classes. I was expecting 4 or 5 students at the most, and I was shocked when I got 18 applications back. I couldn’t stand to turn any students away, so I accepted them all and we began on a journey to find not just one STEM Unsung Hero, but six!
While not every group was able to submit an entry to the Discovery Award, all of the groups learned about Unsung Heroes within the STEM field, such as Hedy Lamarr, who was an actress but also an inventor. She used radio frequencies to create a secret communication system to help fight against the Nazis in World War II. And Virginia Apgar, who was the first woman to become a professor at Columbia University of Physicians and Surgeons and also developed the A.P.G.A.R. Test, which is a screening of newborn babies to determine their initial health once delivered, and is still used with every newborn today. The students were not only learning about the personal side of these heroes, they were also learning the science behind the inventions and the physiology behind the screenings. This was authentic, student-driven, discovery-based learning that the students were invested in and loved.
They met every week, an hour before school for eight months. I was even able to get a field trip approved to take them to the Lowell Milken Center’s Hall of Unsung Heroes, where they loved seeing all of the different displays. They felt a part of something bigger than themselves, and they saw the value in all of their hard work. I will never forget this group of students, and I will continue to strive to incorporate Unsung Hero projects into my science classroom.