NASA aerospace education specialist Sylvia Perez-Fasano used a cotton ball and spoonful of water at Lynbrook Elementary School to stress the basis of experimentation methods that are not only used by NASA but also may be part of the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests that Fairfax County students are subject to.
"Why do you think we did get such different readings? What we are trying to do here is get a control," she said.
Although Perez-Fasano is using her NASA expertise and a hands-on experiment to teach the Lynbrook fourth-graders a list of vocabulary words from the SOL materials, supplied to her from the teachers at Lynbrook. This has been part of a trend at Fairfax County Public Schools ever since SOLs became part of the equation. Instead of teachers sticking to a textbook style curriculum, they're utilizing experts and hands-on exercises to disguise the curriculum.
Lynbrook teacher Andrea Johnston liked the customized approach. She looked at the results of last year's SOL scores when formulating the lesson.
"What she did today was something we were a little weak on," Johnston said.
Fellow fourth-grade teacher Melanie Buschovich brought her class in for the lesson, as well.
"The kids love it, someone other than their teachers," she said.
Patrick Glowacki watched Perez-Fasano count the drops of water from the cotton ball. He's learned from other speakers as well, besides his teacher.
"To learn things our teacher doesn't know," Patrick said.
Judy Matlock, a county SOL coordinator at the high-school level, said the creative teaching methods are used at all the grade levels.
"Teachers are trying to integrate the Standards into their instructions. Many teachers see it as a chance to be creative," she said.
Areas of the curriculum that reflected low scores in the past are history and chemistry, said school spokesperson Paul Regnier. Scores in this area have increased lately, though.
Springfield Estates Elementary principal Susan Garrison had a hands-on lesson last year, when students packed things in wagons, ran across the school field and set up camp, simulating homesteading in the early 1800s. She called this history lesson "Pioneer Days."
"Everything reconnects back to the SOL materials, all those concepts are imbedded," she said.
This year, the fifth-graders at Springfield Estates are doing an exercise based on Greek cities and ancient civilizations.
"All that imbeds the vocabulary," Garrison said. "The ability to comprehend the question is so important."
ALTHOUGH THE TEACHERS don't have a copy of the individual tests, guidelines are available that reflect SOL material. On the county Web site, SOLs are addressed, giving "an overview of the academic objectives for the Program of Studies in each of the core subjects: Language arts, math, science and social studies for kindergarten through 12th grade."
Although the SOL material isn't a drastic change from material that was taught before, it is a factor these days.
"The objectives are a very close match with our curriculum. The state doesn't publish ahead of time what's on the tests," Matlock said.
Regnier is happy with the county's performance on the state-mandated SOLs.
"If you look at our scores, we're doing very well," he said.
Beth Ide has a daughter, Caitlin, who is a third-grader at Silverbrook Elementary School. Caitlin's class recently completed a project about Egypt and the pyramids. Each student built a pyramid, and Ide remembered one covered in Wheat Thins, a brown, wafer-thin cracker. At the conclusion of the project, material was sent home with instructions for the parents to keep the material and review it in May for the SOL tests.
"She learned a ton of history. She had a huge, comprehensive knowledge of what it took to build a pyramid," Ide said.