Last updated: July 18. 2013 4:12PM - 2731 Views

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Students in Carroll County will learn about science in a whole new way next fall. Teachers from St. Paul School in Cana and Carroll County Middle School were selected to join an innovative, free professional development project designed to change the way science is taught across the state.

Their year-long participation in the Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement (VISTA) kicked off this summer with a four-week training institute. Its goal is to shift from the traditional teacher-led classroom to a hands-on, problem-based learning lab. VISTA, funded by one of the biggest grants ever awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, was created to validate existing research that shows this hands-on learning model improves student learning.

St. Paul teachers Becky Hill and Brenda Seal and Carroll County Middle School teacher Hilda Tate have been attending the Elementary Science Institute on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg this month. This marks the first year the institute is available at Virginia Tech, making VISTA more accessible to the teachers of Southwest Virginia.

As part of the institute, area students were invited to attend a free, two-week camp. The embedded student camps give teachers a chance to practice the hands-on approach they are learning. Students are attending from five Blacksburg schools.

In addition to the free, four-week program, each teacher receives a $5,000 stipend; $1,000 in teaching resources, science materials, and web content for their classrooms; a master teacher assigned to coach them in the new teaching method throughout the school year; and an all-expense-paid trip to the Virginia Association of Science Teachers Professional Development Institute in the fall.

Hill, a fourth grade teacher at St. Paul, said the problem-based model of learning allows students to take on the role of a real scientist to investigate and find possible solutions for real world problems and concerns.

“It is a very hands-on teaching model that includes a lot of science inquiry and teaching the nature of science (NOS) components,” Hill said. “Students must use their critical thinking skills and trial and error to come up with solutions, instead of there always being an exact right or wrong answer.”

It’s a wonderful opportunity, Hill said, because VISTA is giving each teacher $1,000 to spend on science equipment for the classroom. The money will allow teachers to buy equipment to perform the science experiences they learned this summer.

“Without this money it would have been difficult to purchase the needed supplies because, as we all know, our schools have to conserve resources right now,” she said. “I can’t wait to get back into the classroom and share this new knowledge and ideas with my students. I can’t wait to try these new ideas in my classroom. I think my students are going to love this method of learning. Most importantly, I believe the students’ critical thinking skills will improve as they investigate to discover the answers.”

Tate, who is moving from St. Paul to Carroll County Middle School this fall, is a 6th grade science teacher. She said the program will help her buy new materials and supplies for her classroom that wouldn’t have been available otherwise. She is excited about what she learned at Virginia Tech and will be able to bring back to students.

“The experience has been unlike any other professional development I have ever been involved with. During the two weeks of camp, students were involved in a number of design challenges such as building a solar car and a household that would be more energy efficient,” Tate said. “Research is suggesting that students score higher on tests when taught using the Problem Based Learning model. Students are more engaged in their learning. Students come up with questions and then over a period of time, using a variety of hands- on and inquiry activities, students come up with answers to their questions. I saw first-hand how the students reacted during camp, so I am excited to try PBL with my students.”

Seal, a fifth grade science teacher at St. Paul, said VISTA has been an intense, educational and rewarding experience. She’s eager for the school year to begin so she can put the new approaches into practice. Seal participated in various labs, which allowed her to have the student’s experience of inquiry, nature of Science, and problem-based learning.

“I also experienced the teaching aspect of these new approaches when Becky Hill and myself, plus two teachers from Roanoke, were responsible for two days of instruction during the student camp. We created power point presentations, wrote design challenges, and set up experiments for the challenges,” Seal said. “One of the best labs the students experienced was the Fruit Battery. Different fruits were hooked up to a volt meter, so the campers saw how chemical energy from the fruit could be converted to electrical energy. They didn’t stop the experiment with fruit, though. They tried pickles, Coke, Diet Coke, water and salt water, etc. We also toured Virginia Tech’s dairy barn, the Lumen House, the Dream Lab, and other facilities on the Tech campus. The entire institute was amazing. It made me more aware of all the opportunities just waiting for our students.”

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