Using Science to Solve 21st Century Problems

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In Vietnam, there is a huge problem with beach erosion. This is largely due to human error as many developers have dredged the coral reefs out to make lime for concrete, not understanding their protective powers as a barrier to erosion. Many resorts have learned this lesson the hard way, building obstructive erosion control buffers in a variety of retaining walls which leads guest to other resorts.The problem is cyclical. Many developers will take coral from another stretch down the beach to solve a problem in another location only to find years later the destructive consequences of their actions.
Beach holidays are common in Vietnam with destinations being Phu Quoc island, Mui Ne and Danang. All locations are seeing an increase in erosion. Although this is a natural phenomenon, human activities are accelerating the problem. As a science teacher, I wonder if awareness can be spread from a young age and may our young people participate in finding solutions? I decided to approach this with a problem based learning approach with a series of challenges and share our research with the Vietnamese community by investigating:

                    "How do particle size and density influence the erosion of beach sand?" 
                                    "What are the alternatives to beach replenishment?"

Early Steps
Calculating density of various sediments
A problem as large as this has a number of steps that require critical thinking and problem solving which, as a teacher, I find particularly interesting. Although the students have done experiments on soil porosity and drainage, they now had to figure how to measure the density and particle size of soil.
We used a google doc to compare our notes as we measured density and sediment size although the latter was difficult to accurately measure. We were even able to reinforce some mathematics skills such a eliminating outliers, averaging numbers and even compare measurements on the side of beakers with volume formulas recently learned in the math classroom.

It's amazing to see what happens when students work on an authentic task. They become instantly curious. Ask questions. You can see sparks, like their interest, fly. Students were coming up for me to teach them a mini lesson on how to control the volume of water going through a model, and while we're at it, how do we measure the volume of water traveling down a river?

Measuring erosion
Once we knew answers to those questions, students were able to hypothesize on how density and sediment
size may influence erosion. Using stream table troughs, they were able to conduct controlled experiments by constructing a river setting. Although the wave action of the ocean would be more appropriate, we thought that it would be hard to standardize and that natural stream erosion would be similar but we could chock up the difference under 'sources of error'. Some students used river models, some tried to recreate a beach type setting. Afterwards, all groups came to the same conclusion: higher density and larger sized sediments erode slower than lower density and smaller sediments. Some students wrote up their research on their blogs (in order to share to beach resorts later) and we gave each other peer review. We even had a local Vietnamese scientist validate our conclusions through a skype chat.

Alternatives to Beach Replenishment
Testing Erosion Control Devices
Using science to understand our natural world works is only half of the equation. The second part was engineering an erosion control device to minimize or stop the problem that was a.) scientifically proven to reduce beach erosion and b.) aesthetically pleasing. This is where the fun of engineering and STEM initiatives took hold. Students had created a number of devices that remixed our current body of knowledge with creativity. Through controlled experiments, they were able to understand the effectiveness of their device in order to make recommendations for larger scale of production and also recommend construction materials based the nature of their materials. Groups beamed their research (in the form of a blog URL) to resorts around Vietnam and already we have gotten many thank you's and invites for service projects. One of the benefits of project based learning: it can lead to volunteerism.

Using Science to Solve 21st Century Problems
I'm very proud of this work that my students did. Shifts in standards have advocated for inquiry, problem solving and the emphasis that there is not one correct answer in science. Data may support many conclusions depending on your variables which applies to both science and life. This is what makes science so fun; students can take the role of science and practice it; not merely pass content knowledge on tests. They are scientists and we don't tell them the answer, they discover it on their own.

Building takes a part too. As students learn of the nature of materials, they learn what such materials are used for. They don't just understand density, they start to understand what high and low density materials are used for. Suddenly, they start to see that a bicycle frame is made of aluminum because it's durable and light, much better than iron. They also understand why a cooking spoon is covered in plastic-it's an insulator and metal is a conductor. Suddenly, they see this knowledge making sense of the world around them rather than passing it for a test.

Such projects inspire students. I think of Zach Bonner who started the "Little Red Wagon" charity foundation or Alex Loors who started a student campaign against global warming and it's inspiring to think that young students can feel so compelled to be an agent of change. Giving our students the opportunity to care, the opportunity to conduct research and the opportunity to make a difference in their local community is the most important job we can do.

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