Spotlight: Flowing Waters

Partnership program brings Texas State students into local classrooms

By Mary Kincy

Flowing Waters students

Students examine slides under microscopes as part of a Flowing Waters exercise.

A partnership between Texas State and the San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District is changing the way middle- and high-school students in San Marcos schools understand science — and just in the nick of time.

Studies show students in the U.S. are lagging in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and Flowing Waters is a hands-on program designed to engage students in the sciences, offering avenues of approach that promote interest and inspiration.

Each year, Flowing Waters places eight Texas State doctoral students in San Marcos schools, where these “resident scientists” encourage students to ask and answer their own questions using the scientific method.

Shawn McCracken, who is pursuing a PhD in aquatic resources at Texas State, is a resident scientist partnered with Miller Middle School teacher Kenneth Jaques. McCracken says the students in Jaques’ seventh-grade classroom engage better when a resident scientist is present.

“They ask (me) different questions than they would Mr. Jaques because they know that I’m a research scientist,” he says. “They know that I go to the Amazon jungle and climb trees … and that’s definitely kind of a ‘wow factor’ there.”

McCracken, when he isn’t in the classroom as a Flowing Waters resident scientist or a student in his own right, is engaged in research that examines the effects of environmental quality on amphibians, with a significant focus of his research directed at examining environmental effects on a type of frog that lives out its life perched amid bromeliad leaves in the canopy of the Amazon rainforest.

One field experiment McCracken engaged Miller students in involved examining the wildlife in different types of outdoor spaces. The seventh-graders learned firsthand that forested areas were home to more wildlife than those that had been developed.

“It was just a really simple exercise,” McCracken explains. But valuable, he points out. “Those sort of hands-on lessons try to be very exploratory. Not giving them the answers, but letting them kind of figure it out on their own. … They get excited about that stuff because they’re not sitting in the classroom most of the time when we’re there.”

McCracken, who aspires to work as a college professor once his degree is complete, says he, too, has learned important lessons from Flowing Waters — in his case, about the craft of teaching.

“You definitely realize what a hard job teaching is,” he says of his time in the Miller classrooms. “I come home from there exhausted.”

McCracken says the language and examples he must use to engage middle-schoolers is different from his usual modus operandi as well. “Examples of things that might get me excited about science definitely aren’t things that get them excited about science,” he says. In ways, though, his future will mimic his present, McCracken estimates.

He explains: “When I think about it, these 13- and 14-year-olds are not that much younger than the 18-, 19-year-olds at the freshman level at the university.”

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