Though fourth-graders at Brookwood School weren't able to make their traditional visit to Lakeshore Park for Georgia STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Day earlier this month due to the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, they did enjoy a virtual meeting with Dalton State College professors, who shared their STEM knowledge and perspective.

John Lugthart, a professor of biology, and Christopher Manis, an assistant professor of biology, shared insights with the students through a Zoom meeting.

"We were really excited to do this, and the more chances we have to work with (Brookwood students), it's an advantage," Manis said. "We're sewing the seeds for later and preparing them."

Brookwood's teachers wanted to give their fourth-graders an exceptional experience to close out their year, even with the pandemic, and student Hayden Hall led the youth brigade toward that goal, said fourth-grade teacher Tiffany Thompson. Hall is "one of our top-notch kids, always on task, focused, and curious."

Hall "thought it would be really fun," said the rising fifth-grader. Lugthart and Manis helped the Brookwood educators understand ways the school can improve its research.

The Brookwood students could see that Dalton State students are engaged in similar research, Thompson said. Furthermore, "it's vital for them to understand why we do the work we do, (as) there's a civic-mindedness" to STEM studies.

The Zoom meeting allowed students to reflect on what they'd studied throughout the year and connect all that knowledge.

While the students were asked to mute their microphones during the meeting, they were encouraged to use the chat function to ask questions, and they did submit numerous queries, Lugthart said. "You could see the enthusiasm there."

That's not surprising, because "the kids are drivers of this, and they don't want any gaps in their learning," Manis said. "We want to keep this fresh in their minds and keep their brains working."

Indeed, Brookwood's students "have taken ownership of this, and they don't lose any of (the knowledge), because it means so much to them," said fourth-grade teacher Sonia Elkins. "It teaches them to think critically."

Plus, "you can't dislike turtles," Manis, one of the founders of the Turtle Assurance Colony at Dalton State, said with a chuckle. "Turtles are a very charismatic species."

The "turtles are the hook to learn about any ecosystem," Thompson said. "They (the students) can learn to apply their learning to anything," because, at Brookwood, students build on their knowledge year by year.

The Zoom symposium also helped Lugthart realize that virtual meets could be a way of sharing insights with more individuals, he said. "At Dalton State, we couldn't possibly bring in fourth-graders from all schools in this region, but we could possibly (meet with them via) Zoom."

Manis seconded that notion, adding that this experience "has made us all a little more creative and inventive."

During his portion of the meeting, Manis discussed multiple turtle projects, including the ongoing research at Lakeshore Park, which Brookwood is heavily involved with, he said. "There are six-seven species that show up there," including the yellow-bellied slider, common musk turtle, river cooter, snapping turtle, painted turtle and spiny softshell turtle.

To be able to visit Lakeshore Park as a matter of course is "special," said fourth-grade teacher Annette Rojas. "It's truly an extension of our classroom."

Studying an ecosystem in their own backyard "makes it real for students," Thompson said. "It's not something across the ocean."

Manis also touched on the Turtle Assurance Colony, and care for those animals has now fallen to a handful of faculty members, including Manis, with students forced to be away from campus due to the pandemic.

"Usually, we have about 20 students rotating through, and they want to come back," but until that's permitted, Manis and the rest of his "skeleton crew" are making sure "the animals are all taken care of," he said. "We made up a schedule, and we communicate via Facebook Messenger."

He also delved into a project that began in the fall of 2019, a collaborative effort with the American Zoological Association, Dalton State and the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.

With Brookwood's students, Lugthart expounded on STEM careers, programs and majors at Dalton State, and the long, fruitful partnership between Brookwood and Dalton State that, for one thing, led to the resurrection of Lakeshore Park, which had been "neglected and even abused," he said. In fact, the park's resuscitation has been an ideal example of teamwork, collaboration and problem-solving, all key skills for those who work in STEM.

"You identify a problem, then fix it through collaboration," Lugthart said. "It takes a good deal of patience and persistence to solve these problems."

Science is now "at the forefront" in the battle against COVID-19, and "it's important we have people in these careers," he said. That's true when addressing local issues like a park that had fallen into disrepair, timely problems like COVID-19, or a macro "crisis like climate change."

In science, "you ask questions, collect data, then share that data," Manis said. "Science is a way of thinking, and we want them thinking that way all the time."

"I don't think you ever turn it off," he added. "It's the way you view everything."

To learn from Lugthart and Manis "is powerful," both for Brookwood students and staff, Elkins said. "We're all approaching this as scientists, and we are working with true scientists at Dalton State."

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