Terron Ostby has a theory about cooking hot dogs using the "extreme hot dog cooker."
Terron Ostby has a theory about cooking hot dogs using the "extreme hot dog cooker."
Nora Gathje's students have the reaction time, right pitch, the scoop on poop.

They're inquiry curious.

"We've started a new class in seventh grade, Inquiry Science, that all kids are taking for a trimester, and the whole thing is to make them learn how to ask questions about science," said the Chatfield High School science instructor. She recently took 36 students of 44 to the Southeast Minnesota-Western Wisconsin Regional Science Fair.

"The class is student-based and -focused rather than teacher-based and -focused. In class they're coming up with their own questions, learning to use scientific method to find the answers instead of the teacher telling them things that they know she already knows," Gathje continued. "I also take older students on independent study that they can get credit for as a class, doing research projects - they choose a topic and pursue the research on it - it's student-driven and self-motivated."

Gathje elaborated, "I want the kids to be curious, to ask questions, and by taking all the students through the process of scientific methods, they're learning 'how' and not just getting the answers. It helps to grow the science fair program, increase their scientific literacy as a whole, and help them focus on the process, not just things they know. Two years ago, I brought one student to the science fair, last year I brought two, and this year, I brought 36."

While not all of the projects earned ribbons, Gathje is proud to have students willing to venture into scientific inquiry and learn how things work, from snails sliding down the sidewalk to baseballs flying through the air at varying velocities.

"I'm trying to show them that if there's anything they love, they can mix it with science...they can take anything at all, ask questions about it and answer it with science. That's what I want to encourage kids to do. I think we're going in the right direction, in part because there's a big push in the state to go to science, math, engineering and technological education, but also because they're able to ask questions and learn through the process."

Regional science fair winners included Logan Boyum, who received the National Association of Biology Teachers' Award in medicine and health for her project entitled "Incredible Ibuprofen," and Bennett Gathje earned the Directors' Award for Creativity and a trophy for his project, "The Scoop on Poop," on measuring the total output of chicken, beef cattle and dairy cattle manure.

The teacher related, "Three students all presented scientific papers in front of a room of judges, and they're all moving on to state. It's separate from their projects. Cameron Kullot's was 'Reaction Time with Cell Phones,' seeing if there's a different reaction time between high school boys and high school girls driving and talking or texting on their cell phones, Logan Littles' state paper, 'Musical Intuitions: Does How Much Practice Affect the Ability to Recognize Pitch?' and Bennett's paper on 'The Scoop on Poop'."

Four students will present their projects at the state science fair in Bloomington, Minn., on April 6 through 9, including Kullot and Gathje, Sawyer Haagenson, whose project was "Creating Fresh Drinking Water from Salt Water," and Justin Viss, whose project is about the comparison between the exit velocity of baseballs off BBCor and BESR baseball bats.

"They all won first-place ribbons at regionals and move on to state competition with their projects," she noted. "Our second place ribbons were given to Karley Aguiar, Logan Boyum, Hunter Hobbs, Jacob Peterson, Austin Swancutt and Logan Little."

Gathje hopes to keep her students engaged in science and its tenets, even if they aren't always interested in competing at the regional or state science fairs, as she pointed out that a passion for science is a passion for curiosity, for originality.

"I want my students to become interested early on, in seventh and eighth grade, so that they come back for more in ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th grade. I want them to take a topic they love and see the science in it," she concluded.