TAYLORSVILLE, Utah (ABC4) – The students of West Lake STEM Jr. High in West Valley find themselves in a unique situation. Holding middle school classes in an elementary school building has brought challenges for the faculty and students, but they are challenges that the entire school is overcoming with a little adaptation.
Two years ago, their school was damaged by a 5.7 magnitude earthquake, and they haven’t been able to return since. While the new junior high building is under construction, these students have been commuting six miles by bus from West Valley to an elementary school in Taylorsville.
The elementary school building is small, and students and faculty have to utilize outside buildings to accommodate all the classes and students. It also doesn’t have all the resources needed that you would normally find in a junior high setting.
“We don’t have a lab. We’re sitting in an elementary school classroom that doesn’t fit them with one sink,” Deb Smith, a science teacher at West Lake STEM Jr. High said. “There’s only so much we can do from a science standpoint.”
Smith said the change has been a bit stressful. Faculty have had to adapt their classes and do things a little bit differently to help students learn what they are supposed to be learning. For example, on Friday morning they brought in scientists and researchers from the Huntsman Cancer Institute to give students a creative activity, blending the arts with science. The experience not only gives students a unique way of learning what they need to but it can be done in the space and resources they have.
Students did a variety of activities that morning, they added proteins to a safe-to-handle bacteria and created a color-ful palette to paint with. They also extracted their own DNA with salt and water and used dish soap to see what it looked like.
Dr. Bryan Welm, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Utah and researcher at the Huntsman Cancer Institute told ABC4 that an opportunity like this could be beneficial for the students in a number of ways.
“Being in the school and classroom every day all day for the school year is really tough, particularly for people that it’s hard for them to sit down and concentrate,” Welm said. “It’s an ability for them to escape and I think that’s important for the kids. It gets them motivated throughout the week that they are going to experience this, anticipating the event, and doing it and everything.”
Welm and Smith both said the students love to attend these experiments. Many of them even dress the part in white lab coats provided by Smith and the researchers, saying that they feel smarter in the coat.
The experience was made possible through the Pathmaker program. The program, developed by the Huntsman Cancer Institute, brings students, teachers, and researchers together to learn creative ways science can be used in a classroom.
Joseph Gonzalez, a student with West Lake STEM told ABC4 that he thought the experience was cool, and that learning from a practicing scientist gave him a different perspective on sciences.
“You can paint with protein and I never knew you could paint with protein,” said Gonzalez.
His classmate, Enrady Soto, echoed Gonzalez’s statements saying the experience was fun because it was different from what they would normally do.
The faculty said they love it too. Welm told ABC4 as part of the activity they taste-tested the nutrients the bacteria need to grow: A mixture of yeast extract, powdered milk, salt, and water mixed together.
“It tastes and smells awful if you could imagine,” Welm said, “a bunch of kids will raise their hand,[and] a number will try it. If kids do it, then I’ll do it as well, and we are all gagging by the end of it. They seem to have fun with that. I kind of like making fun of myself too. It’s just entertaining for everybody.”
For Smith, she hopes her students come away from the experience with a newly found confidence. Smith said these students may not have models like these scientists in their families, and she hopes that this lab can help students realize they can do anything.
“More than anything, this is probably the bottom line, I just want them to have this exposure and let them know that they can do these things,” Smith told ABC4. “Even if they don’t become scientists that’s okay because they are going to do things that they didn’t think they were capable of doing. It’s opening their eyes to see what’s possible.”
At least one of Smith’s students, Soto, said she is inspired to get into sciences. She told ABC4 she is interested in doing breast cancer research, the same field Dr. Welm is in.
“I want to help people get better,” said Soto. “To support them and do the things we have to do to make them feel better.”
Welm is hopeful the experience helped other students feel the same way.
“We need more scientists,” Dr. Welm said with a smile.