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SMC immerses Niles students in STEM

Edible math, hurricane-proof engineering and characteristics of living things engaged Niles Eastside Connections sixth, seventh and eighth graders March 22 at Southwestern Michigan College.

To exemplify how probability measures the likelihood events will occur, SMC math faculty member Robin Shipkosky used M&Ms chocolate candies students sorted by color to teach the Law of Large Numbers.  Mars Inc. claims that each package contains 13 percent red, 14 percent yellow, 20 percent orange, 24 percent blue, 16 percent green and 13 percent brown. One student whose bag contained 63 candies calculated she indeed had eight red and 15 blue, but 12 green instead of 10 and 10 orange instead of 13.

Students performed another experiment, tossing quarters 50 times to accumulate heads and tails data to delineate theoretical probability from experimental probability. Theoretical probability indicates 50 percent of coin tosses would be heads and 50 percent would be tails. The students’ small individual samples varied, and just one group reported 25 out of 50. But when 250 data sets from all five tables are tallied together, the large sample divided precisely: 250 heads, 250 tails.

“As our sample size gets larger,” Shipkosky said, “experimental probability moves closer to theoretical probability. Collectively, we had a large enough sample to get 50/50.”

Biology and environmental science instructor Deirdre Kurtis set up 12 stations around the perimeter of her lab in the William P.D. O’Leary Building, challenging students to deduce whether items were alive, dead or dormant based on such characteristics as is composed of cells, obtains and uses energy, reproduces, possesses different levels of organization, grows and develops and responds to the environment.

“Cells, the smallest unit of life, make up tissues; tissues make up organs like your pancreas, liver and stomach. Organs come together to make systems, like your nervous system,” Kurtis said.

Stations consisted of a plant, a pig scapula (shoulder blade), a vial of DNA, a flame, yeast, chloroplasts (conduct plant-cell photosynthesis) hydra, a resurrection plant which springs back to life when hydrated, Daphnia (an aquatic crustacean known as water fleas because of their swimming style), seeds, cork and a paper bag.

Physics and math instructor Andrew Dohm challenged groups to build a freestanding tower strong enough to support a tennis ball as high as possible off the table while withstanding a fan standing in for hurricane-force winds. Materials available for constructing the tower included index cards, straws, craft sticks, chenille stems (pipe cleaners), masking tape and string.

“Engineers take common materials and use them in different ways, which takes creative thinking,” Dohm said. To help facilitate that creativity, Dohm said, “We put people in teams because each of you have individual talents, skills and abilities. You see things differently. When you put that mixture into a team, that team becomes very powerful.”

The event was coordinated by SMC’s STEM Club, a student-based group advised by Dohm. “This collaboration with Niles Eastside Connections is exactly what we want our STEM Club to promote,” said Vice President of Instruction Dr. David Fleming. “Bringing the excitement of science and math to kids at a young enough age so that they can see how the subjects interact with their lives every day. It can really make the ideas come alive for them.”