A Teacher’s Perspective on What It Means to Receive a Bright Ideas Grant

Two students watch in anticipation as physical science teacher, Andrew Cox, creates a chemical reaction in front of an infrared camera.

Andrew Cox has been an educator for 15 years, teaching eighth grade physical science the last 10 years. He is a multi-year recipient of the Bright Ideas grant program from Jackson EMC. Recently, Karen Ewing, Jackson EMC’s community relations representative and Bright Ideas program administrator, talked with Mr. Cox about the impact of the grants for his students. 
His latest grant, called “Seeing the Unseen World of Energy,” allowed students to use an infrared camera to “discover” energy reactions. Students used the equipment to explore chemical reactions, infrared light and the flow of energy through different materials. 

Jackson EMC: What does it mean to you to have Bright Ideas funding your project?

AC: It is a validation of my vision to make learning science both awesome and relevant for my students. Science should be every kid’s favorite subject, but students can get so bogged down by abstract concepts and arcane vocabulary that they lose interest.  As teachers, it is critical we figure out how to make science real and relevant to students. We need to build on their natural curiosity. The Bright Ideas grants enable me to do that.

Jackson EMC: Tell us about the “Unseen World of Energy” project for which you won a Bright Ideas grant.  How does this engage students?

AC: Energy is a major topic in physical science, but it can be a very abstract concept for students. The infrared cameras we were able to purchase allow students to explore the world of heat and energy for themselves.  One of the coolest things students witnessed was several chemical reactions in which thermal energy was either absorbed or released. By the time they get to 8th grade, students are familiar with the classic baking soda and vinegar reaction. However, to see the reaction in infrared—to literally see the beaker darken as the temperature drops—comes as quite a surprise to students. 

Also, students saw that when a strip of magnesium metal reacts with acid, it begins to produce bubbles. But when they viewed the reaction through the infrared camera, they could see the test tube glowing brightly as the reaction released heat energy.  These observations naturally led students to question why some reactions absorb energy and other reactions release energy.  Once students’ curiosity is piqued by their observations, I can teach them the concepts in such a way that is meaningful, relevant, and most importantly, memorable.

Jackson EMC: What lessons did they learn?

An eighth grade boy watches a small cup overflow from a chemical reaction.

AC:  Eighth grade physical science studies energy and its effects on matter. But energy is often an abstract concept for kids. The infrared cameras expand the range of what students can observe with their eyes most effectively: They can see some objects (such as people) emit light at wavelengths invisible to their eyes; energy is either absorbed or released during chemical reactions; thermal energy is a byproduct of energy transformations; and how different material of different colors absorb and emit energy. And since infrared is a form of light, all these observations happen at the speed of light. Digital camera technology is something very familiar to students, so they can immediately use the cameras and investigate energy and heat around them.

Students quickly discovered that while glass is transparent to visible light, it is opaque to infrared and that a plastic bag blocks visible light, but is transparent to infrared light. This discovery led students to investigate why different materials are transparent or opaque to different wavelengths of light and the answers students found provided reinforcement and much greater depth to concepts students had learned earlier in the year.

Jackson EMC: How did you decide what program/project to use in your application?

AC: When I’m planning lessons, one question I always ask is, “How can I make this concept real, relevant, and so awesome that kids will remember it forever?” When planning lessons for our unit on light and the electromagnetic spectrum, I was limited in what I could actually show students because the visible light we can see with our eyes is such a tiny fraction of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Students always ask what the world would look like if they could see other forms of light. The best I could do was show them pictures other people took with special equipment that could see radio waves or infrared or ultraviolet. When I realized I could greatly expand the range of light that students could see with infrared cameras, and the cameras could provide a whole new way of observing a wide variety of physical science concepts, I wrote a lesson plan for the grant.

Jackson EMC: As a multi-year grant recipient, what have these Bright Ideas grants meant for your students? What are they able to do/see/experience that otherwise would not be possible?

AC: Doing science sometimes requires the use of expensive technical tools. The high cost of some equipment means that teachers often resort to just telling students about science rather than having them actually do science. The Bright Ideas grants I have received have allowed me to purchase materials that would normally be too expensive with my yearly science budget. The grants have enabled our students to do experiments and gather data that they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.  

For example, with last year’s grant, we purchased force plates that measured human-sized forces in real time when connected to a computer. We used these force plates to measure how a person’s weight changes as they ride in an elevator. Contrary to their initial ideas, they saw that a person’s weight increases when the elevator rises and decreases when the elevator descends. This prompted their questions about weight, gravity and acceleration.  The search for answers to those questions gave students a reason to be engaged in our study of Newton’s Laws of motion.

Andrew Cox, M.Ed.
8th Physical Science
Twin Rivers Middle School
Gwinnett County Public Schools