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Taking Measure

Just a Standard Blog

I’m Helping My Garden Vegetables — and My Students — Bloom Where They Are Planted

Kandice Taylor, in safety glasses, laughs as she pours liquids into a glass flask that is overflowing with foam.
Kandice Taylor works on an experiment during the NIST Summer Institute, a summer program for middle school teachers.
Credit: B. Hayes/NIST

Middle school is the perfect time to plant the seed for a child to grow a lifelong love of science. That’s why I love being a middle school teacher. 

My students are definitely still kids, but they’re at a developmental period in their lives where they are growing and coming into their own. They’re developing their own attitudes and opinions, something you may relate to if you have a middle schooler in your life! 

This preteen age is the time to capture their imaginations and instill a love of science. It’s not easy — especially when you’re competing with smartphones and laptops for kids’ attention. Today’s technology makes it hard to teach critical thinking, but if we’re going to raise the next generation of scientists, engineers — and really, just good citizens — kids have to learn these skills. 

One way I’m doing this is with hands-on science instruction in my middle school classroom in Jackson, Mississippi. This school year, my eighth grade students and I will build a garden to help my students learn about scientific concepts, including genetics. We’ll cross-pollinate plants, and the students will try to predict what characteristics the offspring plants might have, based on their knowledge of genetics.  

This grant-funded garden will not just be for education; it will also help feed my students, most of whom come from low-income families.  

From NIST Intern to Science Teacher 

I grew up in Jackson and attended Jackson State University. I was a NIST intern in the summer of 2010, as part of NIST’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). The program helped nurture my love of science, and I still keep in touch with the friends I met there. 

A woman in safety glasses uses tweezers to manipulate small items on a lab table.
Kandice Taylor works in the lab during her time as a NIST intern through the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program in 2010. Taylor returned to NIST for a summer program for science teachers this summer.
Credit: Courtesy of Candice Taylor

I soon realized that I loved research, but I didn’t want to spend my life in a lab. I tried nursing school but ultimately ended up as a science teacher. 

My first year was tough, and I did not feel prepared for the challenges I faced (as most teachers will tell you). But now, I have won teaching awards and regularly present on lesson planning and curriculum design to my colleagues. 

Summer School for Teachers

As a teacher, I encourage my students to pursue growth, and I want to make sure I’m growing in my career, too. 

I took two weeks out of my summer break to learn how to be a better science teacher at the NIST Summer Institute. It’s sort of like summer school for middle school science teachers (except we’re choosing to be there, and it’s a lot of fun). 

Teachers at a seminar wear safety glasses and look into glass flasks while sitting at a table of experiment supplies.
NIST Summer Institute teachers make “elephant toothpaste” during an experiment they can use to teach their students about chemical reactions. In this experiment, hydrogen peroxide serves as the oxidizing agent and decomposes into water and oxygen.
Credit: B. Hayes/NIST

One of the things I want to do with my students is introduce scientific research. I learned a lot about it during my two weeks at NIST and will bring many resources back to my classroom. 

We learned about how crystals are aligned and how this contributes to rock formation. This will help me to teach these concepts in the upcoming school year. 

I especially enjoyed learning more about the research behind the building blocks of plastic, known as polymers. There are different instruments to test various polymer properties, such as their elasticity. I can reproduce this in my class using simple machines for my students.  

The hands-on experiments the researchers walked us through were so valuable. An air quality researcher showed us how to make our own air purifiers with a vent, a fan and duct tape. I will be doing this hands-on project with my students when we learn about air quality and the environment — particularly relevant after the air quality challenges parts of the country have experienced this summer.

Workshop participants stand around a table donning safety gear like glasses and gloves as they prepare to practice an experiment.
Middle school teacher Kandice Taylor (right) and other NIST Summer Institute participants watch a science experiment demonstration led by NIST’s LaKesha Perry (second from left). Program participants do hands-on demonstrations and hear briefings from NIST researchers over two weeks, both at NIST’s campus in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and online from around the country.
Credit: B. Hayes/NIST

We also learned about NIST’s standard reference peanut butter — and even came up with our own recipe. This was not only fun, but it’s also going to help me frame the standards I have for my students when they come back to school, in terms of the expectations I have for them in the classroom. Just like NIST creates all sorts of standards, I have standards in my own class. 

The researchers also agreed to do video calls with my class this year, so my students will learn firsthand from them. 

The NIST Summer Institute was an excellent program and really builds a bridge between NIST and educators in the classroom. I’m so excited to get back into my classroom and incorporate everything I learned in this program! 

Teaching the Whole Child 

While I know these experiments are valuable, my school doesn’t have much of a budget for science experiments. I spend my own money on supplies for many of my experiments. NIST sent many supplies from the experiments we did in this experience back home with us, and that will be helpful in my classroom. 

I’m also constantly trying to make sure I account for things outside of my classroom that may be affecting a student’s ability to learn and do what I can to address them. For example, a student who may seem uninterested in class might be simply exhausted from taking care of their siblings or experiencing food insecurity at home. 

I have amenities like a classroom pantry where students can take whatever they need — whether that be a toothbrush or a snack — so they can bring their full attention to my class. I also have a “calm down corner” for kids who are simply having a rough day and need to decompress. 

As a teacher in a school where students experience poverty, I do my best to make sure my students can leave problems at the door when they enter my classroom — and maybe imagine an exciting future career in science. 

I am excited about the garden my students will plant this year. My middle schoolers are blooming where they are planted, despite the challenges they sometimes face outside of school. I am grateful for the opportunity to make science even more fascinating for them this school year. 

About the author

Kandice Taylor

Kandice Taylor is an eighth grade science teacher at Chastain Middle School in Jackson, Mississippi. She earned her Bachelor of Science in biology and Master of Arts in teaching from Jackson State University. Taylor was named a Mississippi state finalist for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. She was also a recipient of the 2023 Shell Urban Science Educators Development Award and selected for the 2023 National STEM Scholar Program.

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