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Science Teacher Applies VanAndel Institute Principles to Classroom

A lot of noise comes from East Kentwood High School AP biology teacher Chad VanHouten’s class. Cockatiels may be whistling, students may be feeding the python and her babies or the class might be reacting to experiments. Snakes, a macaw named Armando, a tarantula, fish and lizards are all part of the environment.

“When you want to talk about research, I’ll show you research,” VanHouten said. He spent the summer doing a lot of his own.

VanHouten, a 12th-year teacher at Kentwood Public Schools, recently completed his first summer of a two-year internship at Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids. He did the “grunt work” in Bart Williams’ lab, gaining a sense of  how lengthy and complex science in the real world is and how every person involved plays an important role. Williams is a lead investigator at the institute, researching the Wnt gene and its relation to cancer. The internship is part of the Partners in Science Program, funded  by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. 

“Research is not a quick process,” VanHouten said. “It’s a long process. Part of that is what you have to teach students.”And those long-sought moments of arrival never really come, but open the door to a host of new questions and Cockatiels are among the live animals used in East Kentwood High School's AP Biologypossibilities.

An Exciting Partnership

VanHouten’s involvement with the Van Andel Institute began three years ago when he brought two students to participate in its High School Journal Club. The program is part of  the research center’s  Van Andel Education Institute, which partners with local districts. The students learned to read, analyze, present and discuss scientific journal articles. Both students later completed internships at the institute.  

Then, VanHouten and three other local teachers started their internship to experience science in a professional setting and how it applies to research. He’s using his knowledge in the classroom. “Science education can become almost cookie cutter,” he said. “We are trying to change that.”

Erin Combs, a Northview High School chemistry and physics teacher, also has been doing work at the institute under the Target Inquiry program of GrandValley State University. She’s spent two summers researching prostate cancer with GVSU faculty and 12 other teachers, and looking for ways to tie her lab work into her teaching.

Like projects unfolding at the Van Andel Institute, these teachers’ students use “inquiry-based and discovery-based learning” with lots of experimenting. That means they are asking their own questions and making their own discoveries without a set of instructions. There are constant revisions, collaboration and questions. Projects are ongoing, and may fail to reach the expected outcome. That’s real science, VanHouten explains.

Applying the Knowledge

In VanHouten’s zero-hour lab with AP biology students, groups recently were working on demonstrating how pill bugs react to different environments. Students examined the roly-poly insects that transform themselves into little balls, studying their reactions to warm or cold water, wet or dry soil, crackers, twigs and several other variables. The project is simple compared to what students will be doing by the end of the school year, VanHouten said.

Each group compiles information using its own methods. Through Google Docs every student has access to each other’s information. Like real scientists, they use each other’s work as well as their own.The pressure isn’t in following directions, but in standing in front of peers, taking questions and justifying conclusions, VanHouten said. Students argue constructively.

Senior Sam Mudzingwa says he prefers working toward his own solutions without a guide.“When you experience it yourself, you are able to benefit from it. You see it yourself rather than being spoon fed it.”

Senior Abby Wilusz says she feels challenged to find the answers. “If we ask him a question, (VanHouten) says he doesn’t know. He does know, but he wants us to find the answer.”

VanHouten’s internship continues next summer, but before then he hopes to partner with the institute to run an end-of-year, six-to-seven week student-driven project where students would establish a question and work with scientists on how to approach it.

Marty Coon, science education specialist for the Van Andel Education Institute, said the institute works with more than 300 teachers as a way to transform the way science is taught. Coon helps teachers implement change and follows up with them in the classroom.

AP biology is undergoing a transformation in the ways it’s taught, and VanHouten is part of making that happen, Coon said. “He’s going to be able to do research projects with his students in a way he’s never done before.” 


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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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