VISTA Helps Teachers Experiment with New Science Teaching Techniques

By Catherine Probst

Finding new forms and sources of energy might seem like an odd way to spend the summer. But for teachers and students participating in the Elementary Science Institute at George Mason University, it’s all in a day’s work.

The program, which was open to elementary school teachers from across the region,was part of the Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement (VISTA). The four-week professional development program held in July welcomed nearly 30 elementary teachers from Stafford County, Arlington County, Fairfax County, Manassas Park City, and Prince William County.

State legislators visited Mason in July to learn more about the program. Here, College of Education and Human Development Dean Mark Ginsberg (second from right) meets with Colgan and David Ramadan. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

State legislators visited Mason in July to learn more about the VISTA Program. Here, College of Education and Human Development dean Mark Ginsberg (white shirt, center) meets with the legislators and the VISTA team. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

The institute began with the teachers learning how to present a specific problem to students and how to offer a scenario to engage students in a process to solve it. This year, the problem focused on energy extraction, production, and use and the impact on the environment, asking such questions as “How can Virginia become energy independent by 2020?”

Teams of teachers created problems for students to investigate and solve throughout a 10-day camp. The students functioned as scientific investigators and explored such topics as regional energy sources, the feasibility and efficiency of each source, and the environmental impact of energy extraction, production, and use.

Science educators from throughout Virginia have been participating in VISTA programs throughout the summer. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Science educators from around the commonwealth have been on campus participating in VISTA programs throughout the summer. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

“The goal of the summer institute is to instill in teachers ways in which they can conduct inquiry and problem-based science teaching that incorporates hands-on learning, which has been proven to help increase student learning,” says Donna R. Sterling, professor of science education at Mason, the lead institution on the project. “We are confident that these new ways of teaching will help ignite a passion for teachers and students in STEM fields that they can pass along to the next generation of scientists.”

The institute included a two-week, embedded camp for high-needs students from local schools. The camp allowed teachers to practice the hands-on approach with students in a supportive environment before implementing it in their classrooms this school year. The camp ran from Monday, July 8, through Friday, July 19. Students from Arlington County, Manassas City, Manassas Park City, and Prince William County joined teachers as they acted as scientists to create a plan for how Virginia can become energy independent.

Working together in a science classroom environment, the teachers used their skills and knowledge to work with the students on two separate scenarios. The first scenario involved creating a plan to store energy for several days in case of a natural disaster. The second scenario asked students to prepare for a major festival by producing supplemental energy from renewable energy resources.

During the VISTA Elementary Science Institute, the teachers planned experiments for the students to work through a series of energy problems. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

During the VISTA Elementary Science Institute, the teachers planned experiments for the students to work through a series of energy problems. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Some of the scientists on the VISTA team during the summer institute included Mason systems engineering professor Rajesh Ganesan and Mason astronomy professor Harold Geller. Other educators from Fairfax County Public Schools on hand included Josh Douds, a special education specialist, and Connie Thibeault, an English language learners specialist.

In addition, three local elementary school teachers who participated in last year’s summer institute and successfully implemented problem-based learning methods in their classrooms–Laurie Goss and Jeremy Ferrara of Arlington County and Jayne Reck of Prince William County–returned to offer their advice to this year’s teachers.

“Participating in the VISTA summer institutes has helped me understand the importance of inquiry-based learning,” says Reck, a sixth-grade teacher at Mary G. Porter Traditional School in Prince William County. “Since implementing problem-based learning methods in my classroom for the past year, I have seen my students become more inquisitive and attentive in learning about STEM fields.”

Several state legislators–Senator Chuck Colgan of Prince William County, Delegate Jim Scott of Fairfax County, Delegate Bob Brink of Arlington County, and Delegate David Ramadan of Loudoun County–came to the Fairfax Campus in July to meet with administrators from the VISTA program and Mason’s College of Education and Human Development and learn more about the program. They also visited with the teachers and students and observed their work in the classroom.

At the end of the institute, teachers used their summer teaching experiences to begin developing plans to implement inquiry-based teaching that they will use in their classrooms during the academic year. Teachers will continue to receive professional development from coaches who will visit their classrooms to help implement their teaching plans.

The summer institutes, now held at four sites across Virginia, have served more than 150 teachers and 200 students since 2011. This summer, nearly 130 teachers participated in programs at Mason, the College of William and Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Virginia Tech.

VISTA is a statewide partnership among more than 60 Virginia school districts, six Virginia universities, and the Virginia Department of Education. The initiative is funded by a five-year $34 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education through the Investing in Innovation program, which includes a $5.7 million private-sector matching requirement. VISTA corporate partners include Northrop Grumman, Micron Foundation, Boeing, CGI, and Merck, with additional support provided by Dominion, ExploreLearning, IBM, and the Virginia Association of Science Teachers.

The contents of this document were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Investing in Innovation (i3) program; however, they do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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