Boxes of bones, seeds, chunks of wood, seashells, measuring tape, and even turtle poop have been showing up at schools across Tennessee for more than 25 years, courtesy of a UT biology professor.
In that time, the boxes have provided hands-on science lessons in nearly 1,200 schools across the state.
UT’s Biology in a Box program, which serves students across all grade levels, is the brainchild of Susan Riechert, a Distinguished Service Professor and Chancellor’s Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
“To this date we have 11 different units and hundreds of exercises,” Riechert said.“When I put together the first box, I had no idea of the number of students I would eventually be sharing my fascination for biology with.”
With physical materials as well as fun games and exercises, Riechert’s boxes capture the attention of students who may not have previously had an interest in science, technology, engineering, or math.
“The hands-on opportunity to feel and experiment with different animal furs made learning come alive,” said Kathryn Bruce, librarian at Sewanee Elementary School in Sewanee, Tennessee. “Lots of energy and interest in the materials resulted in deeper questioning, experimenting, and discussions among the students. And that’s just what I want to create—students who observe, ask, and explore the world to better understand it.”
While a conservative estimate puts the number of students who have participated in Biology in a Box at well over 650,000, the program has humble roots.
“My son was in elementary school, and teachers were always asking me to come to their classrooms to share biology with their students,” Riechert said. “I found a wooden trunk in a storage area that had ‘Zoology’ stenciled diagonally across its front, and I filled it with a mixture of sand and dirt and buried a number of fossils from my fossil collection as well other objects like rocks, partial bones, and pottery shards.”
Riechert then wrote a lesson plan called Fossils: True or False, complete with an answer key that she delivered to the school library.
“The entire school of about 1,100 elementary students completed the exercise within a month,” Riechert said. “The librarian asked me what the next box was, so I produced Of Skulls and Teeth, since I also had a skull collection accumulated during the course of my work at field sites.”
As interest in Biology in a Box grew, so too did the scale of operation.
Behind the scenes, at a Lake Avenue storage facility that has been dubbed the “Box Quarters,” is Kashina Hickson, Biology in a Box’s associate director. Hickson’s job is to bring Riechert’s ideas to life by assembling the individual boxes, shooting and editing videos with the help of UT students, and developing online content that builds on the thematic units.
A teacher herself, Hickson knows how valuable the boxes can be for grade school students.
“I feel that still teaching keeps me in the loop about what teachers want and keeps me conscientious about students,” she said.
Since its inception, the program has expanded to include a YouTube channel, a card game, and two Flashgames. Through a partnership with the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, the program has stretched into the surrounding states of Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia.
Riechert and Hickson are also working on several new boxes to add to the current 11 units and see no end in sight for the program.
“We hope that this outreach program will continue to grow as we reach out to worldwide audiences through YouTube and other web-based formats,” Riechert said.
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