ORISE K-12 grant allows middle school science teacher to inspire students with wildlife specimens "Wow factor" materials captivate students and interest them in concepts such as evolution and genetics

March 11, 2020

Former Meadowlark Middle School science teacher Iris Mudd (left) and Meadowlark Elementary School kindergarten teacher Cheryl Corts (right)

Former Meadowlark Middle School science teacher Iris Mudd (left) and Meadowlark Elementary School kindergarten teacher Cheryl Corts (right) teamed up for an unique learning experience where eighth graders from Mudd’s class served as student educators to kindergarten students by providing them with a tour of wildlife and skull specimens, some of which were purchased with the help of a mini-grant from the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. Photo credit: Kim Underwood.

For six years, Iris Mudd taught eighth grade science at Meadowlark Middle School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Her classroom was affectionately known as “the museum” because of the extensive assortment of preserved wildlife and skull specimens she had on display. From beavers, bobcats, and bats to snakes, sea gulls, and squirrels, Mudd’s students over the years were able to examine the skulls and preserved wildlife to make observations about the physical characteristics of many wild animals.

In late 2019, Mudd attended the National Science Teachers Association’s (NSTA) regional conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. She expected that the event’s focus on science content and teaching strategies would help her develop new creative ways to apply her collection in the classroom. What she didn’t anticipate was that the event would also introduce her to ORISE. For several years, outreach coordinators for ORISE’s K-12 STEM Education Programs have attended the NSTA regional and national conferences to raise awareness about ORISE’s free resources for K-12 STEM teachers.

“I initially thought this is too good to be true,” said Mudd. “Not only were ORISE’s resources free, but they were high quality materials that any STEM teacher could use to inspire curiosity in students.”

Among the resources Mudd learned about was a lesson plan competition open exclusively to teachers attending the NSTA conference. It was a mini-grant competition that asked teachers to submit their best STEM lesson plan. Those who registered onsite would have a full month to submit their entry for the chance to win one of three prizes: $1,500 for first place, $1,000 for second place, and $500 for third place.

Still thinking it was all too good to be true, Mudd registered and later submitted a lesson plan titled Distinguishing between Physical & Chemical Changes—two abstract scientific phenomena that can be difficult for some students to grasp. Mudd’s lesson plan included activities and resources such as a formative assessment; video links to show real-world examples; virtual and hands-on laboratories; PowerPoint presentations; interactive games; and even rap music.

To her surprise, Mudd was notified that she had won first place, and the $1,500 grant was awarded to her without restrictions so long as any purchases made were related to her instruction of students in the classroom.

“My intention was to spend the funds on instructional materials I would not be able to afford otherwise,” revealed Mudd. “I went for the wow factor and bought materials that would captivate students and get them interested in concepts such as evolution and genetics.”

Eighth-grade students show kindergarten students a replica skull of the saber-tooth cat

Eighth-grade students show kindergarten students a replica skull of the saber-tooth cat. Photo credit: Kim Underwood.

In all, Mudd purchased bobcat, Allosaurus, and grizzly bear claws; two dinosaur footprints; and replica skulls of a Velociraptor, saber-tooth cat, dodo bird, grizzly bear, and Archaeopteryx—the last of which paleontologists view as a transitional species between dinosaurs and modern birds.

“Materials provided by the ORISE grant allowed my students to see and interact with real and replica specimens of organisms that are mostly extinct,” explained Mudd. “In doing so, they could better understand how today’s species have similar adaptations of other extinct organisms.”

The bones and fossils created an incredible amount of interest among Mudd’s students. She used them to create interactive learning stations throughout the classroom, and when Mudd told her students that only those who haven’t missed an assignment would be allowed to participate in the learning station activity, every single student completed their work. On a separate occasion, eighth grade students served as student educators to a visiting kindergarten class by providing them with an exciting tour of animals from both today and from hundreds or even of millions of years ago.

Mudd has since accepted a new position as the Middle School Science Instructional Coach for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. In this new role, many more students will have the ability to interact with the materials Mudd purchased using the ORISE mini grant. Mudd also plans to work with the local library system to create a summer reading program about animals and will include comprehension questions, activities, and books all related to the animal specimens in her collection.

“This mini-grant was like a gift that keeps on giving,” said Mudd. “Students will learn about present and past animals they have only seen in books. Words cannot express how appreciative I am for the ORISE grant that made it all possible!”

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The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) asset that is dedicated to enabling critical scientific, research, and health initiatives of the department and its laboratory system by providing world class expertise in STEM workforce development, scientific and technical reviews, and the evaluation of radiation exposure and environmental contamination.

ORISE is managed by ORAU, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, for DOE’s Office of Science. The single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, the Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.osti.gov.