Mark McDermott

In the lab, above the world: Meadows Elementary’s Joanne Michael brings the varied wonders of science to her students

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Science specialist Joanne Michael talks about bug genetics with a third-grade student at Meadows Elementary. Photo by Mark McDermott

 

by Mark McDermott

The young geneticists had decisions to make. Six legs, or four? Curly legs, or straight? Green or brown? Maybe most importantly, would their insect have a tail?

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“Six legs!” exclaimed a mop-haired blonde boy wearing a Green Bay Packer jersey.

“I want green legs!” said a little girl with a plaited pony-tail.

The Science Lab at Meadows Elementary School was abuzz with trait discussions. Each student worked with his or her “elbow partner” —  the kid on the same side of the four-person desks —  taking turns choosing the characteristics of their bugs.

The blonde boy with the six-legged inclination, Ronnie, had nobody on his side of the table, and so his teacher, Mrs. Joanne Michael, was his partner. Each had to take the opposite of his or her partner’s choices.

“I want my insect to have a tail,” she told the class. “So mine is going to be a four-leg, green curly-legged insect with a tail. Which means Ronnie’s insect is going to be a six-leg brown, straight-legged no-tail insect.”

The Science Lab is in a mobile classroom at the back end of the Meadows campus. Mrs. Michael, who last June was named Meadows Teacher of the Year, is the school’s science specialist; students study science as part of their homeroom instruction but come to the lab to delve more deeply into the hands-on practice of science. Kindergartners come once a month, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders twice a month, 4th and 5th graders every week.

The 23 third graders in the lab last Friday afternoon were geneticists for the day, a lesson Mrs. Michael calls “Bug Zoo” that serves as a model for how genetics work. But placards hanging from the ceiling above each table indicated the range of science they will all eventually traverse in Mrs. Michael’s lab — signs denoting paleontologist, botanist, zoologist, ecologist, seismologist, chemist, geologist, and ornithologist each hung above a table.

The kids, after choosing their bugs’ traits, set about constructing bugs out of paper bodies and pipe cleaner legs. Third-grade geneticists tend to get a bit unruly. Mrs. Michael has methods for focusing her young scientists.

“Hands on shoulders,” she said, drawing the students attention from their tables to the whiteboard in front of which she stood. “Hands on your shoulders. I just don’t want you confused by not paying attention. If you need to finish your adult bug, listen to the instructions for baby bug, then you can go back and finish adult bug. Eyes should be up here.”

Every student had built a bug, but now it was time to get at the heart of the lesson —  how and why some of that bug’s traits would carry over to its baby bug and some would not.

“Some of your bug’s traits are dominant, meaning they are really big and strong, and some traits are called recessive, meaning it doesn’t happen as often,” Mrs. Michael said. “So we are going to figure out what kind of baby bug traits your bugs are going to have by rolling dice.”

Rolling a 1,2,3, or 4 would mean a four-legged bug, a 5 or a 6 a six-legged bug; rolling a 1 or 2 meant brown legs, a 2 or a 3 green legs, a 4 or a 5, mixed brown-green; a 1,2 or 3 resulted in curly legs, 4,5, 6 straight legs; and finally, rolling anything but 6 meant no tail.

The kids got to work, rolling dice and constructing baby bugs according to the results. In 10 minutes time, the Science Lab was populated by 46 wildly different bugs. As in real life, the diversity of life was beyond even the dictates of the dice. There were long-legged bugs, dancing bugs, short-legged bugs, spewing bugs, bugs with their feet turned out, skinny bugs, flat-bodied bugs, and all sorts of little bug eyes peeking out from the paper bodies, which the kids drew on with color markers.

Mrs. Michael leaned over the new baby bug the girl with the braid had just finished.

“I love how open the eyes are,” she said. “Very curious eyes.”

The teacher walked back to the whiteboard to address the class.

“It’s a model,” Mrs. Michael told the students. “This is not exactly how it works. In real life, do they roll a dice?”

A chorus of high-voiced “Noooos” sounded from the third graders.

“But in real life, there are genes that happen more often, and some that do not happen as often,” Mrs. Michael continued. “And so certain traits or characteristics don’t happen as often because they are recessive.”

She noted how none of the babies were exactly like the parents, and how few had tails. Only one group of kids had baby bugs with tails.

“Which means in the real world, that would be a recessive trait,” Mrs. Michael said. “But that’s okay.”

“I have a unique tail,” a little girl piped up, pleased with her work within the wild unexpectedness of nature.

 

The science cart

 

The adage that says teachers are born, not made, is an overstatement. No roll of the genetic dice produces a ready-made teacher. But how Mrs. Michael came to her profession provides an indication why the adage exists. She had realized teaching was what she wanted to do with her life by the age of 5. On the wall behind her desk is the reproduction of an old polaroid; in it, a kindergarten version of Mrs. Michael, wearing a little blue dress and her hair long, stands before a chalkboard, piece of chalk in her hand, looking at the camera with an air of calm authority.

“It was in a Natural History Museum,” Mrs. Michael recalled, looking at the photo. “I found a classroom, and I found a piece of chalk…The only way I know it’s kindergarten is I recognize the dress. So it’s always been in me, to be a teacher.”

Joanne Michael as an aspiring teacher in kindergarten. Photo courtesy Joanne Michael

She has also long loved science. She remembers a middle school science teacher, Ms. Allen, teaching lessons in such a hands-on, practical way that it drew her in; then, a high school marine biology teacher named Mr. McGowan, who also taught at the college level, really drew her into the rigor and methodology of science. She loved the experiments, and the dissections, digging into the way of the world around her. She grew up in Seattle, so the Puget Sound became her scientific playground. In Mr. McGowan’s class, she and her classmates were tasked with devising instruments that could test water both at 3 ft. deep and at 10 ft. deep. Such experimentation didn’t feel like just another school lesson; it was real science, and it gave her a new lens for looking at the world.

“It kept me motivated, and it kept me inspired,” Mrs. Michael said. “I wanted to be like him because I knew I wanted to be a teacher. Now, I’m not Mr. McGowan. I’m Mrs. Michael.”

Later, in college, when she was obtaining her teaching certification, Mrs. Michael had a realization of exactly what she wanted to do.

“I thought my ideal job would be like art on a cart, but with science,” she said. “I would just go around and teach science all day long; I wouldn’t have to teach anything else. That would be so amazingly cool, I thought, but no one is ever going to do that. That’s ridiculous.”

She taught middle school for a few years in the Inland Empire. Her then-fiancée worked in the South Bay, so she applied for a job at Manhattan Beach Middle School; she didn’t get a callback, but months later former Meadows principal Connie Harrington ran across her resume while looking to fill the science specialist position.

“She went through the middle school applications and found mine and said, ‘I know you weren’t interested in this job [at the elementary school level]. But it’s all hands-on, it’s every grade level, would you be interested in it?’” Mrs. Michael recalled. “It was honestly like she’d been listening to me four years earlier when all I wanted to do was science on a cart. She said, ‘You’ll have your own classroom, create all your own lessons, and have a budget.’ You couldn’t have written a job more perfect for what I was after.”

Since it’s a part-time job, she assumed she’d only do it a year or two. That was 10 years ago. Four times she has received pink slips during difficult budget times for MBUSD; four times, the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation came through with the funding to save the program.

“I am definitely grateful for MBEF,” Mrs. Michael said.

On any given day you might see Mrs. Michael and one of her merry crews tromping around Meadows, investigating some natural phenomenon or conducting an experiment. Recently, for example, she had her kindergartners collect leaves, bring them into the lab, and each rub a leaf with a popsicle stick onto a piece of paper. The green substance that came out was the point of the lesson.

“That’s chlorophyll,” she told the kindergartners. “That’s what makes leaves green. So what do you think happens when the chlorophyll goes away?”

“Oh, it turns brown! It falls down!” the kindergartners exclaimed, alive with new knowledge of how things work.  

“It warms your heart to hear a five-year-old say the word chlorophyll because none of them can accurately pronounce it,” Mrs. Michael said. “And they are trying so hard and they have their little lisps. But just hearing them accurately explain why a tree leaf changes color is amazing. You see their faces light up.”

The range of her work with the kids is as boundless as her enthusiasm for it. Just this week, Mrs. Michael taught 5th graders ecology. Part of the Next Generation Science Standards is that every student should be able to independently devise and perform an experiment, so she brought the students live earthworms. Their task was to observe and arrive at testable questions —  that is, utilize scientific method.

“They couldn’t do anything that could potentially hurt the worm —  no skydiving earthworms! — but could test if worms seemed to prefer orange or apples, if they moved more on red or yellow paper if they went towards wax paper versus saran wrap,” Mrs. Michael said.

Later this week, 4th graders will drop balls of different sizes and densities into a tub of water to see the amplitude of the wave created; they are studying waves. Meanwhile, 5th graders will investigate the six parts of plants we eat —  roots, leaves, stems, flowers, seeds, and fruit —  from regular store-bought foods. Second graders will be hard at work building a structure to protect an Otter Pop from melting in the midday sun.

“I’m rarely bored,” said Mrs. Michael, “in the science lab.”

 

Shoot for the stars

 

Mrs. Michael and her students on the day they talked to an astronaut aboard the International Space Station. Photo by Christina Ibrahim

Rockets are everywhere in the Meadows Science Lab. Most of one wall is adorned with small, construction paper rockets, each bearing a student’s name. Another wall has a rocket blast off photo with the words, “Shoot for the Stars” above it.  One corner of the room has photos of astronauts walking on the moon with “Dare Mighty Things” stencilled in between in large letters. Both pieces of advice are exactly what Mrs. Michael followed, which in September resulted in her students talking with an astronaut flying in orbit above the Earth on the International Space Station.

It began with ham radio. In 2016, Mrs. Michael decided she wanted to launch a high altitude weather balloon with her students. A science mentor of hers told her she had to obtain a ham radio operator license in order to do it right —  the way the balloon would communicate was via a little radio transmitter using an Automated Packet Reporting System, which shows the altitude, latitude, and longitude, wherever the balloons go (typical GPS systems, by contrast, die out at about 20,000 ft.). She joined a group of mostly grandpa ham radio operators in Torrance and got her own license; the group, who dubbed themselves the balloonatics, then helped with the class project to launch their own balloon.

They launched from the Goodyear field in Carson. Each was equipped not only with a radio transmitter but also a pair GoPro cameras and one 360 degree PixPro camera.

“The students did almost everything,” Mrs. Michael said. “They came up with the experiments, figured out where they should go, and on the day of launch, they put everything on the payload, turned everything on…My goal for both years was that on day of launch to touch the payload as little as possible. This experiment/experience is for the students, not for them to watch me having fun.”

The high altitude launches were funded by MBEF’s “Teachers Driving Innovation” grants. The balloons, sent aloft by helium alone, in 2016 went up 98,405 ft. and last March 110,288 ft.

“Most balloon launches are high school or college,” Mrs. Michael said. “I’m doing it with five year olds.”

The first balloon landed in the Pacific and floated for two days about 20 miles offshore until Mrs. Michaels was able to find an eco-tour group called Xplore Offshore to volunteer to retrieve it. Then the kids were able to look at the footage —  Mrs. Michael knew images would get across the idea of what they’d just accomplished more than just data points. At the same time they were looking at the photos, basketball star Kyrie Irving had created a stir nationally by suggesting the world was flat. The photos and video showed otherwise.

“We retrieved the payload and looked at the videos, going, ‘Look, the Earth is round,” Mrs. Michael said. “You can see it right there. We have pictures; we have proof. So they were able to disprove a celebrity at five years old, which is fun.”

The balloon launch last March was a different operation. Every elementary school was responsible for a different part of the launch. After its flight, that balloon landed in the Salton Sea. Mrs. Michael and a friend tracked it and found it, drifting 50 ft. off shore, with just 20 minutes of daylight left. They didn’t want to wait overnight, not knowing where the wind might take it. Mrs. Michael figured the water couldn’t be more than three feet deep.

“Screw it,” she said, handing her wedding ring and other valuables to her friend and his daughter. “I’m going in.”

Among the video footage the kids back at the Meadows Science Lab subsequently saw was of their teacher wading through the gunk of the Salton Sea to retrieve their payload.

“Teachers will do anything for their students, including walking into toxic sewage to retrieve a payload that’s been up in space,” she told them. “And so it was fun. It was a bonding moment.”

It was also hardcore science. The 2017 payload included a sensor that took the altitude, temperature, humidity, air pressure, speed, as well as the latitude and longitude every six seconds.

“For a 3-hour trip, that is a lot of data,” Mrs. Michael said. “I cut my data to one point every 5 minutes, and had my 5th grade graph the data. To be able to juxtapose the video to the graphs was incredible, and another ‘real-life’ experience.”

An MBEF volunteer who’d been involved with the balloon grant, Northrop Grumman employee Elizabeth Kunkee, planted an idea in Mrs. Michael’s head —  contacting the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) program to apply to talk to an astronaut.

“Whew,” Mrs. Michael said. “That’s a lot of work.”

Last October, she applied. By December, Meadows was accepted, and given a window of sometime between this September and December to have a 10 minute radio conversation with an astronaut.

“So it was about 11 months of work for a 10 minute phone call,” Mrs. Michael said, noting that even so nothing was guaranteed. “It’s a lot of pressure. A year planning — almost as bad as a wedding.” 

She discovered as the school year started it would be sooner rather than later.

Her principal, Michelle Krzmarzick, had already learned to expect the unexpected from Mrs. Michael. Then her teacher approached her and said the entire student body would need to walk over to the MBMS auditorium on Sept. 8 —  Meadows has no space big enough for 400 students —  in order to talk to an astronaut.

“Everything she does is all in,” Krzmarzick said. “I mean, when she first told me we were going to take the entire school to the middle school to talk to an astronaut, I thought, ‘What the heck?’ It was only the second week in school, and she arranged all of it. Not only that, but she had to arrange three different times that it might be during the day, and she had to keep changing those. The level of planning, and commitment that she had to put into it – that it was going to work — was astonishing. And she thought out every single detail, from having kids bring plastic bags and having teachers have lunch bags to collecting all the trash there.”

“She is somebody who has the big picture and the small details, all connected. She’s not just full of big ideas; she’s got the whole thing laid out, the whole implementation of it. She’s really something else.”

Astronaut Paolo Nespoli would have a 10 minute window, from when the ISS orbit was over Hawaii until it reached above Florida, in which contact was possible. Mrs. Michaels told the assembled students that radio contact may or may not be successful —  failure is also a part of science. But at a little past 10 a.m., words rang out from the radio in the MBMS auditorium: “Kilo Mike Six Bravo Whiskey Bravo this is Paolo Nespoli on the International Space Station,” the astronaut said, speaking from 250 miles above the Earth.

Students asked him various questions. How do you get picked to be an astronaut? How do you eat without your food flying away? How do you shower? What happens if you get sick in space? What inspired you?

Superintendent Mike Matthews wrote an account of the interaction for the MBUSD newsletter.

“Astronaut Paolo Nespoli called students by name. He answered their questions efficiently, but he filled his answers with interesting examples and stories,” he wrote. “He made it personal, and you could tell that he loved this part of his job. The audience was perfect during the entire time. The sound quality was very, very good, but we were all watching the screen showing the ISS moving over Los Angeles, and then going in a southeast direction. It would not be long until it went out of range.”

“As I was witnessing the last few minutes, I was overcome thinking about the power of great teaching. This entire experience was happening because of one teacher’s efforts. Ms. Michael’s passion for science and for teaching science was behind everything we were all experiencing. She had invested hundreds of hours in making this happen, and she had gathered countless volunteers to invest similar amounts of time. And all of those hours were invested with no guarantee of how it would come out. Great teachers are risk takers and optimists. They try new things hoping that it will work out wonderfully and figuring out how to make lemonade when it doesn’t. Great teachers make connections with students and help the students to play an active role in the learning experience. Great teachers are models for how to be lifelong learners. Great teachers show their passion for a subject and inspire students to catch that passion.

“On September 8, Joanne Michael gave us all of that and more in one of the greatest teaching and learning experiences I have ever witnessed.”

As Mrs. Michael put it, teachers will do anything for their students.

“I want to get them excited and inspired,” she said. “I want to get them reaching forward.”

One of those kids, she hopes, will one day literally shoot for the stars.

“Yeah, I want to be an astronaut,” she told her students on the day of the contact with the space station, wearing her own NASA flight suit. “I’m too old, but talking to one will work. But you guys aren’t too old to be an astronaut. You could be the one in 20 years talking to students because you are up in the International Space Station.”

On Halloween at Meadows Elementary School, all the kids wore costumes.  There were all kinds, of course —  ghosts and cowboys and scary movie villains. But more than anything else, the kids dressed as astronauts.

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