Reaching 4850 feet underground, the Sanford Underground Research Facility (Sanford Lab) supports cutting-edge research in particle and nuclear physics, as well as other disciplines, including the life sciences. As part of Sanford Lab's education and outreach effort, they make available a variety of offerings for K-12 teachers, including fieldtrips to Sanford Lab, classroom presentations, and teacher professional development. These typically serve the needs of teachers in South Dakota, but the K-12 education team also make available inquiry-based curriculum modules that can be used in middle school and high school science classrooms everywhere. Although this review focuses on their life science modules, modules that address chemistry, geology, and physics concepts also exist.
Biology researchers have found that an advantage of having access to a laboratory built nearly a mile below the Earth's surface is the ability to study extremophiles in their natural habitats. Sanford Lab's K-12 education team has taken advantage of this aspect and developed modules containing a series of lessons around the science of life and the characteristics of these organisms. The modules come in the form of a kit that teachers receive. Each kit includes materials for hands-on labs, teacher guides, student documents, and other resources to support teachers as they implement the lessons. The lessons are designed to address the needs of life science teachers and are aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards.
The module entitled “Perplexing Puddles,” for example, solicits students to theorize about the ability of life to exist deep underground. This six-lesson module draws students in with little burden on their pre-existing knowledge. They begin with a discussion about the properties of life, and then jump right into an exploration of these characteristics. This first lesson, “Can Life Exist Nearly a Mile Underground?,” asks students to observe what happens when they pour sugar into three jars of warm water—one jar contains nothing other than the water, another contains pulverized antacid, and the third contains yeast. Without knowing what each jar contains, students must hypothesize which jar might host life, building arguments using evidence. The lessons move on through explorations of the conditions required for life, the ability of extremophiles to survive in harsh conditions, and culminates in an activity in which students use agar plates to grow biofilms similar to those that grow in Sanford Lab.
I found Sanford Lab's lessons cleverly developed to foster critical thinking. Not every lesson includes a lab activity, but they all focus on developing students’ inquiry skills. Students are encouraged to keep science notebooks that will help them track their thought process and knowledge development through each lesson. Since the lessons build off one another, it is expected that students’ knowledge will also grow. The lessons are designed to solicit peer-to-peer learning through both discourse and collaborative activities. The materials are written clearly and will support teachers regardless of their experience with these activities. The “Perplexing Puddles” module, in particular, could be implemented at the very beginning of the school year in a high school Biology course, since teachers can use many of the concepts covered by the module to ground topics that are typically sequenced later in the year, including the study of prokaryotes, adaptation, the cell membrane, and cellular communication. Teachers can visit the website to explore some of the other modules offered by the Sanford Lab K-12 STEM education team. They have developed modules for elementary, middle, and high school students. The module kits can be “checked out” by teachers outside of South Dakota who are only required to pay for shipping each way.