It’s a good day when your teacher sends you outside for a bucket of mud.

This means something interesting is going to happen, something outside the routine of listening, note taking and testing repeated until graduation.

Across the Janesville School District, eighth-grade students are engaged in a new way of learning science—one that involves buckets of mud, thinking like a scientist and, perhaps, making their community a better place.

The students are a part of a study designed by professor Sadhana Puntambekar of UW-Madison’s Interactive Learning and Design Lab. The study, which is funded by a National Science Foundation grant, is called “Biosphere: Fostering Deep Learning of Complex Biology for Building Our Next Generation’s Scientists.”

It’s a daunting title, and a worrisome one, too, especially for those who remember eighth-grade science as a collection of abstract ideas that maybe didn’t apply immediately to the real world.

“The main premise on which my project is based is that science needs to be taught and learned as a connected (networked) body of knowledge rather than set of fragmented facts,” Puntambekar wrote in an email to The Gazette.

On a recent Thursday, the students in Craig Fischer’s classroom at Edison Middle School were making biospheres—miniature composters—out of 2- liter soda bottles.

Fischer laid down the law at the start of class.

“You only get two 2-liter bottles,” Fischer said. “If you do something wrong, you’re going to have to problem solve.”

The soda bottles were cut and then filled with a mixture of materials students chose. Available items include rotting, sprouting or expired food items the students brought from home; dead plant stems cut from Fischer’s yard; and, of course, the bucket of mud and dead leaves collected that morning.

All the ingredients were weighed and recorded in a data notebook. Students must also justify including a particular item.

Oranges cut and squeezed in the mixture added fluid to the mix, and the sugars might feed the other organisms working to break down the compost.

Sam Walters, 13, and his teammates decided to cut up potatoes to expose more of them to the air, bugs and other organisms that might be breaking it down.

Another boy was adding eggshells to his mix. The shells contain calcium, a macronutrient found in healthy soil. As the shells break down, they also help aerate the soil.

And soil is what it is all about.

The goal of the experiment is to find what combination of materials creates the most nutrient-rich soil in the shortest amount of time.

The experiment was one part of a longer study on the effect of garbage on the environment.

Americans generate 250 million tons of trash every year, and about 57 percent goes into municipal landfills, according to the teaching material for the study.

Between 20 percent and 40 percent of waste going into landfills is food scraps and yard trimmings.

The breakdown of garbage in landfills adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Food waste is an issue, too.

Earlier in their study, students did a garbage audit, saving all the trash they generated at lunch.

Photos of the collection showed a pile of food waste on a plastic tarp. It was competing with a mound of milk cartons and another of other food packaging.

Making the connections between the real world and school is a crucial, said Matt Peerenboom, assistant principal at Edison and head of the science curriculum committee. It’s the best way to keep kids engaged in academics.

In October, the Janesville School Board approved new set of five-year goals. One goal reads: “Teachers will increase/focus instruction from direct to engaged and empowered instructional opportunities.” Direct instruction means the teacher is in front of the classroom lecturing while the students listen and take notes.

Providing “engaged and empowered instructional opportunities” means students are doing the work of learning. It’s often hands on, involves working in groups and means students are given a problem to solve—with no instant answers from the teacher.

A sign in Fischer’s classroom describes the steps in scientific thinking: “Create, evaluate, analyze, apply and understand.”

That’s the way Fischer wants students to problem solve if they make a mistake; that’s part of science, too.

“Honestly, the biggest struggle is to stay patient for long enough to let the process take place,” Fischer said. “They have to let themselves be patient with the learning.”

Sometimes that means not coming to a definite answer—or when they do find an answer, having it lead to more questions, Fischer said.

One student complained that “Mr. Fischer never gives us the answer.”

Fischer admits that he does give students “guidance.” Last year, one kid put milk and chili into his composter, and it created a stench that no amount of Febreze would remove.

What do other students think?

“I like it,” Sam said. “It’s interactive, and it lets us get our hands dirty.”

Now where did that bucket of mud get to?

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