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Each spring, sixth-graders in Tracy Albers’ Prairie Middle School science class have the opportunity to become crime scene investigators during a unique, nine-week forensics class. The students are given a fictitious scenario, typically involving a theft, and are given crime scene clues to analyze, then synthesize and discuss the findings. The students conduct analyses on such items as hair and fiber, fingerprints, unknown powder, handwriting, counterfeiting and foot-to-height analysis.

“The students learn to immediately tell the difference between human hair and animal hair, which has a striped appearance under the microscope,” says Albers.

Students break into groups for this hands-on learning unit. The groups document their findings, organize the information, and deduce theories on solving the case.

“What is most interesting to me is to see the students at times get frustrated when the clues don’t match up,” says Albers. “They learn quickly that in real life, crimes can be very difficult to solve.”

The forensics unit is just one example of Prairie’s unique Middle School science curriculum. Considered a spiraling curriculum, students spend a trimester in each of three major scientific areas. In Earth science, students learn about ecology, ecosystems, nutrient cycles, weather and climate. In physical science, they explore Newton’s laws of chemistry. Then they explore the world of genetics, heredity, cells and body systems in biological science.

New science and math summer program

Challenge and engagement in science and mathematics are cornerstones of a Prairie School education, so much so that the Edward E. Ford Foundation, the nation’s premiere benefactor of independent education, challenged the school and its partner private, religious and charter schools to leverage its program, faculty and resources to the greater community — primarily to address a national problem faced at the local level. Our concern: the inadequate number of young people engaged in higher-level high school math and science course work (advanced placement/international baccalaureate), a question that ultimately limits students’ post-secondary, university, graduate school studies and career choices.

To meet this challenge, The Prairie School will launch the Charles and Jennifer Johnson Center for Developing Excellence, a community-centered, summer program for area students at the end of their seventh, eighth and ninth grades. Led by Galen Steig of The Prairie School faculty and Larry Jozwik, a past faculty member of McKinley Middle School, this engaging, experientially based program will accelerate students’ individual development in math and science. Southeastern Wisconsin’s businesses, industries and health services, many of which are joining together to fund the center’s operations and scholarships, will need well-educated future leaders, to return from their university and graduate studies to pursue careers in the area. By engaging young people at the end of seventh through ninth grades, providing a series of Science Saturdays throughout the academic year and providing ongoing academic counseling support, the center will fortify and motivate more students to engage and succeed in advanced math and science study, allowing them to successfully participate in engineering, the hard sciences, medicine, the health sciences and international business curricula while in their university and postgraduate studies. According to both the United States National Research Council and the National Science Foundation, such fields are collectively considered to be the core technological underpinnings of 21st century society.

The Prairie School and its partner private, public and charter schools fully expect The Charles and Jennifer Johnson Center for Developing Excellence to become the region’s center of excellence in math and science preparation. Set on The Prairie School campus, 4050 Lighthouse Drive, a pilot program for current seventh-graders will open this July. The full formal program will be launched in July 2012. For more information, visit 

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