2012-02-23 / Schools

STEM aims to show students how science applies in real world

AMGEN grant brings science to life in classroom
By Anna Bitong


HI-TECH—Two $60,000 high-performance liquid chromatography machines have been installed in the Thousand Oaks High School classroom of scientific research instructor Dr. Nikki Malhotra. The machines allow the students to precisely identify the chemical components of any sample. 
IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers HI-TECH—Two $60,000 high-performance liquid chromatography machines have been installed in the Thousand Oaks High School classroom of scientific research instructor Dr. Nikki Malhotra. The machines allow the students to precisely identify the chemical components of any sample. IRIS SMOOT/Acorn Newspapers In Dr. Nikki Malhotra’s scientific research class at Thousand Oaks High School, students are preparing their experiments for the Ventura County Science Fair.

While some will explore chemistry and biology, one team has taken an unusual path: an experiment in music.

Details of the project will be revealed at the spring competition, said Malhotra, whose advanced college-prep course will be part of the new STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) Majors and Pathways Program at TOHS in the fall. The program, which will also be offered at Newbury Park and Westlake high schools, will launch with an $85,000 grant from Amgen.

The STEM program encourages interdisciplinary learning.

“We want them to relate math, science, art when they go from one class to another,” said Malhotra, who’s taught anatomy, physiology and biology at TOHS since 2000.

For example, a drawing lesson may utilize techniques normally taught in a geometry course, and vice versa, she said.

In Malhotra’s pilot STEM course, understanding how separate subjects overlap is helping students remember and immediately use the information they learn, the teacher said. Instead of relearning basic concepts, they are mastering advanced ideas.

“The kids are excited. I’ve noticed that they’re learning and retaining concepts better,” Malhotra said.

Cindy Goldberg, executive director of the Conejo Schools Foundation, said that Conejo Valley Unified School District has been moving toward a system of hands-on learning.

“Research shows it’s far more effective when kids can use what they’re learning,” the foundation director said.

The STEM program will have a different focus at each school. Westlake and Newbury Park high schools will emphasize biotechnology, said Dr. Jeff Davis, CVUSD director of secondary education.

Malhotra’s scientific research class will be the “centerpiece” of the STEM program at TOHS, the instructor said. The class uses two high-performance liquid chromatography machines that were donated to the school last spring.

The machines, each valued at $60,000, have allowed Malhotra’s students to determine the caffeine content in sodas and to detect traces of pesticides in fruits and vegetables.

In the two-semester course, students learn lab techniques in areas including microbiology and chromatography before creating their own experiments.

“They research online to find out what it is that really fascinates them,” Malhotra said. Students then come up with a question and hypothesis, gather the tools for their project, and collect and analyze data.

Every step of the way, students get feedback from Malhotra and from scientists at Amgen, Baxter and UCLA.

The four-year academy at TOHS will require students to take about 15 classes. Course options include physics, calculus and art media. Ninth-graders in the program will take computer programming and geoscience classes, Davis said.

The program aims to keep kids interested in science and better able to compete with their quickly advancing peers in countries such as China, Korea, Japan, India and the Philippines, Malhotra said.

“We’re trying to make kids stay in math, science and engineering. These are inherently hard subjects.”

So far, Malhotra’s course is meeting that expectation.

“The kids’ testimonials are amazing,” Goldberg said. “It’s heartening to see everyone rise to the level of their excitement.”

STEM courses will guide students to a career in the future, Goldberg said.

“They will have a leg up,” she said.

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