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June 10, 2010

ULM faculty teach oil spill impact and other real world science experiences

The unofficial start of summer has only just begun; yet Barbara Gombossy, a seventh-grade science teacher at Morehouse Jr. High, can’t wait to return to school.

She and numerous other northeast Louisiana parish teachers converged on the University of Louisiana at Monroe campus for a two-week workshop to learn science skills that will eventually reverberate for the thousands of students they regularly teach.

Gombossy expressed her enthusiasm for the project because the concepts the teachers are learning this summer are helping them make connections that will, in turn, help them help their students this fall.

Administrators and middle school students joined the teachers and ULM faculty and staff at Restoration Park in West Monroe on Thursday morning, June 10, for the culmination of the two-week workshop titled, “Out Standing in the Field: Real World Science for Middle School.”

Gombossy said the real-world, hands-on research experiences she had acquired over the past two weeks infused her own understanding of key scientific issues that would help “fill-in the gaps” of the comprehensive curriculum she teaches her students.

“It’s like putting on a new coat of paint,” said Gombossy, of her training. “And I’m ready to take it cruising.”

Made possible through a $125,0000 LaSIP grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents, the project affects middle school students, teachers and administrators from 17 different schools from across the region.

ULM faculty and others used the natural setting of Restoration Park on Thursday to teach several hands-on lessons to the assembled teachers.

Perhaps no research lesson the teachers acquired on Thursday has dominated the news as much as learning of the oil spill’s direct and indirect impact on Louisiana.

Under the tutelage of Dr. Joydeep Bhattacharjee, the participants were taught how to fill a tub with tap water and then combine vegetable oil and cocoa powder to simulate oil entering the Gulf Coast. The demonstration used a variety of material to show how hard it is for scientists to adequately clean the affected environment.

“While putting the right material in the ocean definitely matters, it is even more important to replace it often,” explained Bhattacharjee. “Otherwise, the material becomes soaked with oil and eventually re-enters the environment, which defeats the purpose.”

Bhattacharjee explained the impact of an oil spill on typical flora of the region. He held up a vial that contained a wilted, oil-soaked species of plant common to the wetlands, and compared it to the thriving condition of the same plant in pure water.

“The oil is literally suffocating the plants,” he said. “For a time it was thought that wetlands were wastelands. Now we know they are anything but that.”

Teachers also learned the role of Restoration Park and how it acts like a filter removing non-point source pollution, as well as how to use a camera and a GPS to collect data, among other research tools.

In addition to Restoration Park, the project’s funding immersed middle school science teachers in scientific data-gathering activities at three other local research sites this summer: Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Poverty Point State Historic Site, and the University of Louisiana at Monroe Museum of Natural History.

ULM faculty members Lynn Clark, Ava Pugh, Stringer, Joydeep Bhattacharjee, and Monroe City School Science Coordinator Joyce Tate shared the cross-disciplinary endeavor with faculty from the College of Education and Human Development (department of curriculum and instruction) and the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as the Monroe City School System.

The project also assists teachers in utilizing local opportunities to better teach the state’s grade level expectations in science, and equips them with resources after they return to school.

“This project is something I never would have dreamed would be available,” said Gombossy. “I’m just sorry I can’t go back to school Monday and start working on it.”

The two-week workshop participants received support from 20 local businesses, which supplied food and other materials. Pugh said that because many of the research sites were remote, this support allowed teachers to spend entire days out in the field.

A catered lunch was provided at the June 10 event for all participants and the press.

The project’s business partners include:

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