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‘They See Science as a Joy’

New way of teaching yields many benefits.

Two representatives of the VISTA program, Arthur Polton and Andre Radloff, watched and listened to Centreville Elementary fourth-graders’ presentations on the best ways to preserve Virginia’s ecosystem. And they were impressed with the children’s creativity.

“You had lots of great ideas,” said Polton, former principal of Clifton Elementary. “Thank you for sharing them with us and doing such great thinking. I know you did a lot of hard work.”

This is the second year of the five-year, $34 million program ($28 million in federal funding and $6 million in private money). Polton visits classrooms to see instructors are teaching science and critiques them.

“We also gather data about the teaching practices and student SOL scores,” said Radloff. “Then we see what effect this program development and support has on the teaching of science and on student achievement. This really challenges teachers to think about science differently and teach it in a new way.”

Added Polton: “We want to generate enthusiasm about science and train teachers to teach it even better.”

Fourth-grade teachers Mary Ann Settlemyre and Kate Charlton were also pleased with their students’ performance, and not just because they understood and presented the subject matter so well. It was also because of who they were.

“There were general-education kids, advanced, learning disabled and ESOL students, so it was a true mix of society,” said Settlemyre. “Children who we were told would never learn anything came up with ideas. They’re just 9, but the level of complexity of what they know is amazing.”

Charlton said the variety of students blended well together in their groups. “They learned a lot from their research and collaboration with each other,” she said. “Kids who traditionally don’t do well in school love science. They consider it playing and like experimental design to manipulate materials. They also enjoy looking for results, and that’s phenomenal.”

She said every student in their two classes was involved. “I’m very proud of them,” said Charlton. “It’s a great experience for them and validates what Mary Ann and I have felt for the past several years — that all kids can do hands-on science experiments.”

Agreeing, Settlemyre said, “The students’ labels don’t matter; it’s just good learning and it’s for everyone. Our students are from 15-20 different cultures and speak some 16 different languages besides English. To me, this is what education is about, and our principal, Dwayne Young, supports us 100 percent.”

She also noted that, while the children were working on their projects, parents and experts in various parts of their research talked to them and shared their knowledge. “And parents sent in whatever supplies we needed; we’re blessed. So it was truly a community experience.”

Since this endeavor was so successful, Settlemyre said the whole, fourth-grade team would do another problem-based, science unit on electricity and magnetism. And, she added, “We’ll teach the other teachers this style of learning.”

She said she’s now looking for ways to employ it in as many areas as possible. After all, said Settlemyre, “We were able to integrate math, English, social studies and science, and we covered more science curriculum than ever before in a shorter span of time. And we did it with authentic research, not worksheets. The kids tested water samples and estimated populations in areas. They’re real scientists and they know it.”

“They identified plants that belong in Virginia and found a chrysalis — which they’d studied in second grade,” added Charlton. They also looked for animals in the ecosystem while studying human, plant and animal adaptations and how they affect the ecosystem.

So for these students, said Settlemyre, learning has truly come alive for them. Basically, she said, “They see science as a joy.”