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The City Journals

Jordan District turns students into scientists

Jun 29, 2020 11:13AM ● By Jet Burnham

Afton Barron engineered biodegradable water balloons, earning her the top prize at the regional STEM Fair. (Photo courtesy Janae Barron)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Eleven-year-old Afton Barron was named Grand Champion winner at the Central Utah Science and Engineering Fair for creating lifesaving and environmentally friendly biodegradable water balloons.

Over two years, she made 21 prototypes and documented her process in a 32-page journal. The project, which protects children and animals from the harm from ingesting latex balloons, has earned her top awards at school and District STEM Fairs for the past two years.

Afton and her two older sisters have all participated and performed at the top level in STEM Fairs. Their mother, Janae Barron, credits the opportunities provided by Girl Scout leaders and school teachers that encouraged their interest in real-world problem-solving and landed her older two daughters in their dream jobs.

As a Girl Scout, Afton was exposed to STEM-based activities and environmental issues that helped her develop her biodegradable water balloons. As a student at Midas Creek Elementary, she had access to the school Maker Lab and was supported by teachers and administrators who provided STEM-based assemblies and lessons.

Barron, who teaches fifth grade at Midas Creek, is impressed with Jordan District science initiatives, which she credits to District Elementary Science Specialist Paul Nance, who retired in June after 26 years in the position.

She said Nance is the motivation behind the district’s STEM Fair and that his support of teachers and students is why Jordan District students always do so well in STEM Fair competitions.

“It's a tribute to Paul Nance,” Barron said. “He is leaving a legacy. He has done such a phenomenal job of helping students see that they are capable and competent.”

This year, 310 students from 24 schools participated in the Jordan School District STEM Fair. Top students moved on to compete in the Central Utah Science and Engineering Fair in May, where they dominated, earning 15 of the 19 winning spots. Six of the winners were from Midas Creek.

Nance, in return, credits teachers like Barron, who incorporate engineering principals into their classrooms, encouraging students to figure out their own solutions to problems. 

“Janae Baron, she is an instigator for engineering,” Nance said. “If it wasn't for her, we probably wouldn't have as many engineering design winners. She's fantastic.” 

JSD STEM specialist Jane Harward said JSD students have terrific teachers to prepare students to present and interview well at STEM Fairs. The teachers are trained by Nance, who, for 45 years, has been an advocate for science and for students and teachers in Jordan District.

“I think his greatest contribution is he builds the confidence that teachers are lacking or looking for to teach science effectively,” Harward said. “He does whatever it takes for them to believe they can do it.”

When Nance began teaching in 1975, he said there were no standards for teaching science; teachers were on their own to incorporate science concepts in the classroom. Over the years, Nance has been a part of creating and implementing science standards that encourage students to think for themselves with concepts that cross into other subjects. His final contribution before retiring was to help develop the newest updated science standards, being implemented this fall, that encourage students to actively engage in the process of learning scientific principles with an emphasis in engineering.

“The kids are supposed to do their own investigation instead of the teachers just telling them how things work,” Nance said. “They are actually letting them figure out how to do it.”

Nance’s philosophy comes from teaching for 19 years where he found that, no matter the subject, students learned best with hands-on experiences, group projects, exploring and gaining understanding by figuring things out for themselves.

“I don't want them to sit in their desk all day long doing paperwork,” Nance said. “My philosophy is the kids have to be out of their desk at least six times during the day. We stifle a lot of learning by keeping kids in their seat. They come to school so energetic about learning. We just have to show them and then let them experience it.”

Through her research and experiences developing her STEM Fair project, Afton has discovered interests in botany, metallurgy and engineering. This summer, after she has submitted her STEM Fair project to the national Broadcom Master’s competition, she plans to explore these interests, to continue asking questions and to discover more solutions to problems.