Jeff Bouwman is getting science done

May 14, 2018

The UM-Dearborn lecturer and Downriver middle school teacher believes the key to students learning to love science is letting them do it.

Jeff Bouwman seems blissfully unaware that he is only one man and there are only so many hours in the day.

Monday through Friday, from 8:18 a.m. until  3:18 p.m., you’ll find him holding court for five consecutive classes of 6th and 7th grade science students. If it’s a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, though, his work day is not over; without taking a breath, he’ll hop in the car and head to UM-Dearborn, where he doubles as a lecturer of science and technology to three night classes worth of aspiring teachers. And pretty much every moment before, after or in between, he’s doing something sciency—like sending weather observations to NASA on his phone or taking soil samples, or doing little, not-time-consuming-at-all things like coaching the school’s robotics team. He almost forgot to mention that one.

It’s almost not even worth asking why he does all this because the reason is pretty obvious: The guy loves science and can’t really get enough. He somehow seems to draw more energy from his 12-hour work days than he expends, and has a limitless capacity for taking on “just one more cool project.”

He’s pretty sure he can get anyone to think science is cool, too, just by following two simple ideas: One, by leading with his enthusiasm, which is honest, unapologetic, admirable and genuinely likable. (“My students know that when they walk in my classroom, I’m going to choke them out with science for 50 minutes.”) And, two, by letting students—whether they’re his middle schoolers or undergraduates—actually get their hands dirty.

“I actually have my own hashtag that I kind of slap on everything: #gettingsciencedone,” Bouwman said. “I think that idea—that I do science—kind of defines me. I have a rain gauge in my backyard. I’m constantly taking photos of clouds for the weather work we do. For me, science is something you do every day, like exercising or eating. It’s not just something you study from a book or a laptop, so that’s how I teach it.”

His classroom at Shumate Middle School in Gibraltar is littered with the evidence.

On one wall, you’ll find the fish tanks. In the first, which he’s had the longest, he and his students raise Chinook salmon for the Michigan DNR’s fish stocking program. Then, because one wasn’t enough, he added the other tank to raise a lake sturgeon named “Fishigan,” who’s part of the recovery program for the threatened species. Actually, a week ago, he found out he got approved to have sea lamprey, too—which has since necessitated some thought as to whether he should rechristen the classroom “Shed 2.0.”

That, however, would require a doubling down on just fish, which would crowd out everything else that’s going on in here—including vertical gardens on the east wall, where students are raising herbs and vegetables under fluorescent lighting.

And it seems unlikely he’d dispense with all the weather and climate projects. His students haven’t escaped his hurricane of enthusiasm for that subject either, and have thus sprinkled the campus with rain gauges and filled the lawn around Shumate with tiny holes from the soil core sampling they do.

During a Thursday afternoon class, he hands one sixth grader a tablet so he can go out and take a photo of the clouds, which is clearly a daily a routine. 

“We take these observations of soil moisture or cloud cover and then send them to NASA, which they use to see how accurate their satellites are,” he said. “I mean, this stuff is going to NASA. Tell me that’s not cool.”

Who would dare?

Over near the gym is one of the more recent additions to that  “one more cool project” category: a weather station from Florida-based WeatherSTEM; Bouwman said he bugged the CEO long enough until his school became the only spot in Michigan hosting one of the company’s high-tech packages of instruments. It’s part of a new movement supporting “hyper-local weather,” which scientists are using to do things like improve warnings about extreme weather events.

His students at Shumate are no doubt the most direct beneficiaries of all this passion, but he also said it colors his work with his UM-Dearborn students—most of whom are studying to be teachers themselves.

“Being a practicing teacher, I don’t necessarily bring the textbook. I bring the real world,” Bouwman said. “I bring a story about what we actually do. And you see the difference in how they respond to it. We have the tough conversations about anything they’re concerned with, and they know I’ll give them an answer they can trust. They know, because three hours ago, I was in the classroom.”

And in another 14 hours he’ll be back there. Then back to UM-Dearborn again, and so on, as Bouwman somehow manages to (hashtag) get it all done.

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