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Program urges teachers to make learning hands-on
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Martinsville teacher Greg Hackenberg (center, in ball cap) leads a search for vertebrates in a creek feeding into the Duck Pond on the Virginia Tech campus. The activity was part of the Elementary Science Institute at Virginia Tech, a professional development program designed to change the way science is taught in schools. Hackenberg and fellow city teacher Stephanie Boyd took part in the four-week program, which involved working with students in Blacksburg. (Contributed photos by Teri Ford)
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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

Two city school teachers spent a month this summer exploring ways to help students work like “real scientists” to gain a deeper, hands-on understanding of their science lessons.

Martinsville City Public Schools teachers Stephanie Boyd and Gregory Hackenberg attended Elementary Science Institute at Virginia Tech as part of a professional development project designed to change the way science is taught in schools.

The June 24-July 24 institute was designed to shift science instruction from the traditional teacher-led, lecture-driven classroom to a hands-on, problem-based learning environment, according to a news release from the Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement (VISTA).

Since 2011, VISTA has conducted Elementary Science Institutes, which are held at four sites across the state, to encourage students and teachers to work as scientific investigators and use innovative, critical thinking to help solve society’s most complex issues, the release stated.

During the first several days of the institute, teachers learned about problem-based learning, worked with scientists and planned lessons for the second part of the institute: a two-week camp for children from the Blacksburg area looking into “dead zones” on the Chesapeake Bay, according to the release, Boyd and Hackenberg. In the last several days of the institute, teachers, working with scientists, planned lessons to use in their home schools.

“This was really great professional development,” Hackenberg said. “I feel like I’m a better teacher because of it. I’ve found ways to make learning more authentic; to use scientific tools, discourse, collaborate, be more student-centered. Instead of myself always planning experiments, they’ll (students will) have more of a hand in it.”

Boyd said she believes problem-based learning will teach students “critical thinking a little better and a higher order of science. A lot of times students expect the teacher to tell them everything.” Problem-based learning will help students to think for themselves, to critically analyze and apply what they have learned, she added.

Boyd and Hackenberg said with problem-based learning, students are presented with a real-life problem or scenario that they must solve.

“You let them solve it in an open-ended way,” Hackenberg said — meaning there’s not just one right answer.

During the camp for children, their problem was to identify the causes of dead zones on the Chesapeake Bay and determine how to reduce and contain them.

“They came up with a lot of cool ideas,” Hackenberg said.

According to the websites for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, increases in agricultural development, population growth and sewage treatment plant discharges have caused the bay to become nutrient rich, primarily from too much nitrogen and phosphorous.

That leads to so-called “dead zones” of low or no oxygen that can stress and even kill fish and shellfish, according to information from the EPA and the foundation.

Boyd and Hackenberg said campers did online research about dead zones; tested water samples and did other research and experiments about photosynthesis and other topics; and did presentations about their findings to a panel of scientists. Photosynthesis is the process by which a green plant turns water and carbon dioxide into food when the plant is exposed to light.

Some students made models of dead zones and showed how pollution from different watersheds can go into the bay, Hackenberg said. He added that some students made robotic jellyfish to test water and filter out pollutants.

Students concluded there were multiple causes of dead zones, Hackenberg and Boyd said .

“One of my big take-aways (from the institute) is science should be truly hands-on,” Hackenberg said. “Students should be using real scientific instruments and work like a real scientist does.”

With problem-based learning, Hackenberg said, “Instead of being the sage on the stage, the teacher is the guide on the side. Research shows with student-centered, hands-on learning, there is deeper understanding and more long-term retention rather than rote memory.”

Hackenberg and Boyd said they also learned about the “nature of science,” which according to them and online information, consists of important features of working science. They include science is a social activity (scientists bounce ideas off each other and have peer review); there are potential biases and limits; and the scientific world is understandable, or as Hackenberg put it, “a bird is flying — that can be explained through science.”

Boyd and Hackenberg said the lessons they developed at the institute to take home focus on how to preserve the Natural Bridge (destined to become a state park), which will be a springboard for students to learn about related geology. They said they hope to involve community and other resources.

They also said they hope to share what they learned at the institute with co-workers.

Laurie Fry, a spokeswoman for VISTA, stated in an email that In addition to the free, four-week program, each teacher who attended 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-expenses-paid trip to the Virginia Association of Science Teachers Professional Development Institute in the fall.

Hackenberg teaches fifth grade at Albert Harris Elementary. Boyd taught third and fifth grades at Albert Harris a total of six years but will be at Martinsville Middle School this year.


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