Saturday, June 23, 2012

Randolph College institute helps plug science, math learning gap - Lynchburg News and Advance

Twenty local teachers huddled on Randolph College’s front lawn Friday morning to watch physics professor Peter Sheldon prep an air-propelled rocket for take off.

Attached to the rocket was an egg protected by a handmade capsule of paper and drinking straws. If the rocket was successful, it would return to Earth with the egg unharmed. If not, the teachers would have to brush up on their physics skills and redesign the capsule.

Sheldon switched on the air pump.

Whoooooooosh.

The rocket whizzed toward the tree tops.

Splat.

The egg was not so fortunate.

“It blew up on the launch pad,” said one teacher, stifling laughter, as she surveyed the mess of yolk and egg shells.

The hands-on physics lesson was a hit with the teachers. Many planned to bring the rocket experiment to their own classrooms next year.

Friday’s physics lesson culminated Randolph’s weeklong teaching institute for elementary and middle school educators. Science and Math Links: Research-Based Teaching Institute debuted in 2010 and experienced a spike in demand this year.

Public and private school teachers from across the region gave up a week of summer vacation to hone their lesson-plans for next fall. The institute reached its capacity of 60 teachers this June and logged a waitlist of 40 more.

Randolph College developed the program, in part, to respond to the country’s projected shortage of trained scientists. Between elementary school and college, countless students lose interest in science and math, a phenomenon Sheldon calls the “leaky pipeline.”

Randolph College decided to address this problem by emphasizing the importance of using hands-on activities, especially with younger students.

But with the demands of standardized testing and a packed curriculum, taking time for hands-on learning can be an uphill battle, Sheldon said.

“With the SOLs that require teachers to cover so many different topics, there’s very little time for hands-on experimentation. But the only way you’re going to get kids excited about science, is to do this,” he said, referring to lessons like the rocket launch.

Through break-out sessions in math, physics, life sciences and other topics, the teachers are exposed new strategies and lesson plans.

“The whole week is giving them resources in science and math to hopefully better reach the kids and better excite the kids about these topics,” Sheldon said.

So far, it’s working. In May, the teaching institute received statewide recognition for its positive impact on student learning. During a ceremony in Richmond, the program was one of six to receive the 2012 “Program that Works” award from the Virginia Math and Science Coalition.

The program has struck a chord with dozens of local teachers. Many said they could not wait to try out the new methods.

“The activities are great. You can take them back to the classroom and use them,” said Lisa Creasey, a math teacher at Tomahawk Elementary.

Charlene Cobbins, a 6th grade life sciences teacher at Forest Middle School, has been coming to Randolph’s teaching institute since its inception.

“You grow. It’s a time of teacher growth,” said Cobbins, who has taught for 32 years.

“If I give my students hands-on materials to work with, and they encourage that here, the kids stay engaged.”

Another perk: each teacher enrolled in the institute receives between $80 to $100 in materials and supplies to facilitate experiential learning. The program also offers $1,000 mini-grants for more elaborate projects.

“It’s hard to find good programs out there,” Vicky Wilson, a first grade teacher at Dearington Elementary. “This is just a wonderful asset for the teachers in this area.”

The teaching institute already secured funding for next year. Though the focus will remain on math and science, Randolph will invite school administrators to attend, in addition to teachers.

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