Delving Into IB Science in Texel
“A life changing experience”, said Ian, Class of 2010, when reflecting on the IB Science Trip to the Dutch island of Texel, just off the northern coast of the Netherlands. For decades, this three-day trip has been a unique experiential learning opportunity focusing on STEM and student collaboration across the scientific disciplines. In a nutshell, this trip gives the chance for IB Science and Computer Science students to work in mixed-subject groups, to engage in intensive investigative work and answer a question of their own design through brainstorming, researching and completing experiments in the field and the lab. Without a doubt the trip has been an unforgettable part of the #ASHexperience.
But how did this trip originally come to fruition? To answer that, we must travel back to the late 1990’s when three scientists (and coincidentally ASH high school teachers) - Tom Kelley (Chemistry), Paul Terry (Biology), and Jim Tisel (Physics) - came together to brainstorm a way to keep science “as real as possible, while meeting the needs of the students”. Many conversations were had to build this distinctive project out, piece by piece, to ensure a consensus from the three teachers (representing the three sciences) on the learning foundations of the trip.
Tom shared “the goal to provide a unique experience for students to glimpse what science is, and how difficult it is to really “know” something in a fascinating world of innumerable variables. In later years, our wonderful colleagues contributed their observations and suggestions that continue to make the trip better and better every year.”
The first attempt for the trip was more local, bringing the students to Teylingen Castle near Voorhout. This preliminary venture allowed students in IB Biology, Chemistry and Physics classes to explore the 13th century castle and plan on site scientific investigations of the ruins and surrounding flora and fauna. It was highlighted at the time as one of the many “special features” of the IB science program at ASH. Learning from this experience, with the vision of using Texel island and Ecomare wildlife sanctuary as homebase, the three teachers worked hard to make the IB Science Project to Texel a reality for IB science students in the 1998-1999 school year. As it was the first project of its kind, these three teachers were not just assessing the academic/curriculum parameters and goals, but also logistics of lodging, travel, and working closely with the local Texel community.
Jim reflects “The people on Texel were receptive and supportive of our visits. That was a key to getting things started. Tom, Paul and I typically went up to Texel for a late afternoon visit several weeks in advance of the actual project to refine trip details. The Ecomare representatives, for instance, that we spoke with were thoughtful, appreciative listeners; their input was really valuable. The early days of the project were “adventurous”- but everything always worked out.”
Over the next 5 years, the project continued to grow and develop in its approach, format and goals, labeled as “a science adventure requirement for the IB Diploma”. In 2004, the project framework was quite similar to what it is today: Students working in cross-disciplinary groups to form a hypothesis, design an experiment, collect field data and analyze the results, using the team's collective knowledge of biology, chemistry and physics. Students were encouraged to ask meaningful questions about what they observed, and design a realistic way to seek an answer to their questions. Data was collected in the field, and then processed in the labs at Ecomare, in order for each individual student group to prepare and deliver a presentation at a “mini science conference” for the entire group.
Tom shares “These students learned to trust and help each other and cooperate. They taught us how expecting the best of them helped them achieve more than they or their teachers could imagine. My best moments of teaching were learning from these students.”
While it is true that scientific research was the focus of each annual trip, adventure became a key underlying factor in the trip's character and flavor. From battling unpredictable (however usually wet and cold) weather conditions, to sometimes strange and spooky accommodations and questionable food, with each passing year the students would come together to expand both their scientific and social horizons. Tom and Jim both admit that as a group of “three male scientists”, sometimes they were also finding their way through the logistics of the Texel experience, making mistakes and having to blend together their individual signature communication styles. Jim says they were fortunate that the students were willing to adjust to occasional bumps in the road, with Tom noting that each error helped them become more sensitive to the scope of the project details.
Jim attributes the early students of the project to the fundamental success of the trip: "Those first few groups of students really shaped the Texel experience in a positive way; the ASH students were important originators of the project. I recall more than one visit to Texel that featured heavy rain, blustery winds, and temps just above freezing. Yet there they were in their boots, knee-deep in mud, science, and fun, braving the elements, gathering data, intent on finding information that would help them on their journey of understanding the various scientific connections.”
As the years progressed, the IB Texel project expanded to include the IB science courses of Computer Science and Environmental Systems & Societies, alongside Physics, Chemistry and Biology, to further widen the scientific knowledge and scope represented. More subjects represented meant more students, and thus more teachers coming on board to help ensure the trip’s smooth execution and scientific success. In recent years there were up to 11 teachers accompanying the students for the entire duration of the trip - with sometimes additional staff joining for a day of field research or lab studies, to get an inside glimpse on the intrinsic value of the project. Each year the project also changes the location of research on the island, to ensure the students can explore the full breadth of ecosystems present and thriving on Texel.
While many elements have evolved over the years, the student reflections continue to remain a constant in showcasing just how formative this trip is in developing their scientific thinking. Here are just some of the alumni highlights and observations…
“This project was a great experience overall, and most importantly, it shows students how to perform actual field research…”
“I learned about how difficult it is to control variables and how difficult it is to overcome confounding variables during a project. Working together for an interdisciplinary project was very interesting but it made it more difficult to come up with an overarching question that could be studied from several scientific perspectives.”
“It was a very fun trip—more than I thought it was going to be– where I was able to actually understand what it is like to work as a scientist in a field.”
“Working together with my team was enjoyable and I formed better bonds with the members in my group. The presentation was also nice to have because it was nice to see that all the research and data actually led to something that we could present to everyone.” “My favorite time of the year, five times in a row!! Miss it every year since!!”
“I always loved the presentations and the arguments over methods and data analysis. Real science.”
“This was the day I fell in love with science and conquered my nemesis. Thanks to Mr. Terry and the whole experience.”
Through all the ups and downs of those early formative years, to the cornerstone that it has become today, the outcome of the IB Science Texel trip is primarily scientific, but also produces fellowship between students and teachers, a sense of humor to brace the unexpected, and team building that is the overall result of the Texel adventure. As Tom Kelley said “As scientists the students tried to leave no mark on Texel, but the island has truly left a mark on each of them”.