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On the matter of energy

Kentwood — Freshman Alexia Jackson closely examined a bag of cornstarch mixed with yeast and water.

“OK. We’re at the 2 minute and 30-second mark,” she told her group, glancing at a timer and noting a change to the mixture. “It looks a little thicker to me.”

Seated next to Alexia, Ricky Nguyen made another observation. “As time goes on the liquid becomes more dense,” he said.

Seven-and-a-half minutes later, Alexia, Ricky and group members Tarik Velagic and Londyn Edwards extracted air from just above the fermented mixture with a syringe, pushed the air directly into a breathalyzer and got an alcohol content reading of 0.01 percent.

About 15 minutes after that, the group tested a new mixture, this time containing sugar instead of cornstarch. They watched it bubble and separate more dramatically than the first mixture had before testing it and registering an alcohol content reading of 0.19. It was high enough to set off an alarm on the breathalyzer. Sugar is a more potent ingredient in creating ethanol than cornstarch, they discovered.

There’s no doubt about it – the freshmen in teacher Wendy Johnson’s class love mixing things up. Johnson intentionally gives them opportunities to do so, merging lessons in biology and physics through experimentation. It’s all the better when the end result is biofuel.

The Right Mix

Welcome to biophysics at the East Kentwood Freshman Campus, the brainchild of Johnson and colleague Kristin Mayer that blends two high school science courses into one hybrid to help students build a better foundation of knowledge and understand how energy really works. In its third year it is now the required freshman science course in Kentwood Public Schools.

The longtime friends and curriculum creators designed the class partly because they were passionate about clearing up a nagging inaccuracy they couldn’t get off their minds.

Johnson explained: biologists and textbooks often take shortcuts and say things like “breaking down food releases energy.”

‘Students are learning physics and biology. There’s no ‘that’s the physics rule; that’s the biology rule’. They’re seeing that science makes sense. The rules are always the same.’

– science teacher Wendy Johnson

The problem: that isn’t scientifically accurate, she said, and when students get into higher science courses things don’t add up. (The confusion often starts during chemistry class, the course students typically take after biology and before physics.)

“Energy is not released when molecules are broken (like when food breaks down), but when new, more stable molecules are formed,” Johnson explained. “When students take biology before chemistry, they often develop misconceptions about energy that are really hard to change later.”

The disconnect was so hard to remedy that Johnson, who formerly taught biology, and Mayer, who has taught chemistry and physics, intensely debated how to get students to grasp it. Mayer laughs remembering hashing it out with Johnson when they carpooled to a conference.  “We were in her car for three hours in the carpool parking lot to finish the debate.”

One thing was certain: “Energy is energy and we don’t want conflicting rules in two different classes,” Johnson said.

Kristin Mayer

A Solution

One day, an idea popped into Johnson’s head. Combine biology and physics into one class. She called Mayer with the “crazy” thought.

 They talked through initial doubts and uncertainties and then began dreaming.

“We started thinking about what some units could look like,” Johnson said.

A solar unit could focus on growing plants, blending the physics of electricity with the biology of flourishing plants. Other ideas — fueled by energetic teachers – took shape over time.

Now they are comfortable with what students are learning as a foundation before they move on to other courses. Also, the teachers say more students are passing and are posting higher test scores than in their previous classes.

“Students are learning physics and biology. There’s no ‘that’s the physics rule; that’s the biology rule’. They’re seeing that science makes sense. The rules are always the same,” Johnson said.

Added Mayer, “It’s so exciting when I pause and step back. We are doing it. (Students) are seeing how energy and matter are important in both fields.”

The course also helps meet new Next Generation Science Standards.

All East Kentwood students take biophysics their freshman year, which also leads to more room later to fit in Advanced Placement science courses and other electives. Another semester of biology is still required in junior or senior year.

From left, Ricky Nguyen and Alexia Jackson test air from their biofuel in a breathalyzer for its alcohol content


During the biofuel experiment, students reacted with excitement as their mixtures created high alcohol content readings. They had made a substance that could power engines from plant material.

Learning physics and biology at the same time provides them information to think deeply about that, they said.

“I enjoy it. I love learning anything and everything,” Alexia said. “I like combining the two (classes). Especially at a freshman level, they are quite similar and can link hand in hand. I think it can be helpful for kids to learn the connections quicker.”

Added Ricky, “I think biophysics is a good class to have as freshmen because it gives you an introduction to learn more about energy and atoms before you go into chemistry or physics or biology.”

It’s helpful to have a foundation of both classes as a starting point. “I think it’s a good mix of the two and it’s easier for kids to learn when they are both together,” London said.

From left, Tarik Velagic holds a breathalyzer while Alexia Jackson pushes air into it. In back, Ricky Nguyen holds the mixture
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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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