A group of Kyrene Centennial Middle School students were hiking down the side of South Mountain Tuesday when they paused to look at a tree.
"This is a Palo Verde," said Karl Wyant, an Arizona State University doctoral student who was leading a lesson on ecology. He then asked the students for theories on why its leaves were so small.
This isn't a normal science class - the 17 students participating in this lesson are part of an after-school science, technology, engineering and math club led by ASU students. The club is one project funded by a two-year, $1.7 million grant from the Science Foundation of Arizona, and one of the efforts ASU assistant professor Tirupalavanam Ganesh is working to make math and science more accessible to the public and more relevant to kids.
Ganesh has long had an interest in the way kids learn: He has engineering degrees and a doctorate in education, and his wife has been both a grade school and college-level teacher. Engineering education is his specific area of study.
The grant is providing fellowships to about 20 doctoral students who are studying various math and science subjects. Ten of those students spent the fall creating lesson plans to teach their areas of study to Centennial students, then put those plans into action through the after-school club in the spring. Sixth grade students are completing an ecology unit, seventh-graders are learning about solar energy and eighth-grade students are learning about prosthetic limbs.
"We facilitate children's interest in exploring things. And after school is the way to do it, because they choose to join the program," Ganesh said. "They wouldn't join if they weren't interested."
The club focuses on hands-on activities that make math, science and engineering relevant to real life, which will hopefully encourage more students to ultimately study the subjects later on, Ganesh said.
But it's not just the middle school students who are learning. Ganesh also feels strongly about teaching his doctoral students to learn how to discuss their subjects in a way that's understandable by the general public.
"You have to reach out to children; you have to reach out to the public," Ganesh said. "Otherwise, the relevance of science and engineering is lost."
Scientists and engineers can talk to each other using very specific terms, but those conversations won't necessarily be understood by most people, Ganesh said.
He pointed to science in technology stories in the New York Times as one example of how discussing technical subject in language that's easy for everyone to understand can foster the public's interest.
"We don't only want the New York Times to be doing it," Ganesh said. "We want the people who are doing the research to be able to do it."
And that, in turn, will force scientists to think about how their work is relevant to the public at large, he said.
Wyant agrees that working with Centennial students has helped him discuss his work with people who aren't experts in his area of study.
"A lot of it is just how to communicate with people. When you do research, your mind specializes," he said.
Wyant's specific focus is soil food webs of the San Pedro River, so it was natural for him to develop a set of lessons around desert food webs and ecology.
For each of the past five weeks, he has taught students about subjects like how energy from the sun flows through an ecosystem and identifying what is and isn't alive in an environment. Then the students go out to South Mountain and identify the things they've learned about.
Wyant has liked bringing hands-on lessons to the students.
"I think there's a perception that science is boring and you're stuck in a lab or at a computer," he said. "But these kids have been able to go into the field and look at chuckwallas."
Sixth-grade student Amanda Coote already knows she wants to study science - specifically astrobiology - but she saw the club as a way to expose her to a wider variety of sciences.
"I don't think you get into ecology for awhile. I might not have been able to learn this," she said.
Classmate Justin Goldman saw the club as an opportunity to get involved in something he found interesting.
"The first thing that pops into my mind in science is experiments and fun," he said.
Goldman has also enjoyed getting out into the field to observe the ecosystem he's learning about.
"Instead of copying it down from the board, you learn with an activity, which is (learning) a lot more," he said.
Wyant and Ganesh aren't done with Centennial just yet. The teachers Wyant has worked with will help him with some of his field research this summer, and Wyant hopes to be back at Centennial to help with the STEM club again in the fall.
Ganesh said 10 more doctoral students will have an opportunity to work with Centennial students again next year.
That's among several other projects Ganesh is trying to get off the ground. He wants to work with another group of ASU graduate students that volunteer in Phoenix classrooms, hoping to formalize their volunteer program and offer instruction on how to work with students. He's working on a grant that would develop a comprehensive plan for teaching students math, science and engineering using real-world problems in middle school. And he's interested in Science Cafes, informal gatherings with scientists that help make their work more relevant to the public through casual conversations.
"I believe in this," Ganesh said. "I would really like a more engaged public with science and engineering."