Lori Gordy plopped one penny after another into a Styrofoam cup dangling from the end of a ruler. “Sixty-five, sixty-six,” she counted as each coin dropped.
Next to her, Kamellia Keo monitored the other end of the ruler, where another dangling Styrofoam cup was stuck with a blob of peanut butter to a Styrofoam plate. Keo held the plate down on the table top as the pennies plinked.
“Ninety-six, ninety-seven,” Gordy continued.
Already, the pair of middle school teachers had done the same experiment using jelly, honey, dish soap and molasses. So far, the highest number of pennies needed to unstick the plate had been 19: molasses. But just as the 98th coin fell, the peanut-butter cup flew up, the penny-filled cup dropped and spilled. Both women started laughing.
“My sixth-graders would love this!” said Gordy, who teaches math and science in Trenton, Ga.
Keo, of Washington D.C., and Gordy were among 28 middle school teachers visiting the University of New Orleans as part of a six-day training program called “Real World Science: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” held July 17-22. The program is a collaboration between UNO and the National World War II Museum that aims to give fifth- through eighth-grade teachers a stock-pile of ideas for how to effectively teach science using history as a guide.
“Students who learn through experience and in the context of issues that they understand are more likely to retain the information and use it in the future,” said Matthew Tarr, professor of chemistry and faculty fellow in the Advanced Materials Research Institute at UNO.
Tarr and World War II Museum STEM education coordinator Rob Wallace are in their third year developing and leading the program, thanks to $350,000 in grants from the Northrop Grumman Foundation—funding that covered a year of planning and two years of implementation.
Over the course of the week, the teachers explored concepts with both history and science connections. A discussion of Higgins boats used in World War II led to an exploration of buoyancy, density and force. A history lesson on the challenges physicians face when trying to save wounded soldiers led to a discussion of infection and class activities that can connect concepts of design, microbiology, physiology and organ systems. And an exploration of the Manhattan Project boosted discussion on how and why atoms behave the way they do.
But the week was not only about learning and understanding scientific concepts. It was about teaching effectively, in ways that really engage learners.
Teachers performed two types of labs: inquiry-based labs that allow students to engage in scientific practices that require them to think and arrive at previously unknown outcomes; and recipe-based labs that require students to follow directions and arrive at known outcomes.
The “sticky-meter” experiment that Gordy and Keo conducted was, Tarr explained later, inquiry-based. The teachers formed opinions about how the matter would react and why, then collected data on their experiments.
An earlier recipe-based lab in which the teachers followed prescribed steps to make gold nanoparticles gave the teachers a rare experience, but left several of them saying they didn’t fully understand the scientific concepts behind what they had just done.
“As a teacher,” Wallace said, “you’re not a deliverer of information, you’re a facilitator of experiences…Part of the reason for these labs is that idea—they’re going to see the difference between a lab where somebody says, ‘Do this, do this, do this,’ and a lab where they have a little more freedom to make decisions about how to conduct it.”
Arthur Peace, an eighth-grade science and social studies teacher said he started off as general studies teacher in elementary school. When he started teaching in middle school, budget cuts meant he and other teachers had to take on more responsibility, which is how he found himself teaching two subjects.
“Doing something like this renews my enthusiasm,” Peace said. “And doing science in conjunction with the museum has given me new resources.”
Tarr said that’s the idea. Given that each teacher has about 100 students they impact over the course of a year, it’s important that they know what to teach and how to effectively teach it.
“Most of those teachers don’t have a science degree,” he said. “So we have a lot of people who teach science who are not really that skilled in science because they just didn’t get that education.”
Zachary Ockunzzi teaches fifth-grade science and social studies in Wadsworth, Ohio. While being immersed in science-history connections has been exciting, he said he’s also looking forward to bringing home two instructional tools he learned over the course of the week. One, called the “Five Es,” encourages teachers to construct curriculum around activities that require students to engage, explore, explain and elaborate before the process is subjected to a self-, peer- and teacher evaluation
“It all makes it more meaningful,” Ockunzzi said.
If the program is successful, Wallace said, “I want them to feel better and more confident teaching science. I want them to have connections to the way science was really used and changed the world in the past and is doing so today.”
The program participants were selected from among 100 applicants from across the country based on their applications, essays and professional recommendations. In addition to the teachers, an evaluator from the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul, Minn., was on-site and is following the program, including following up with teachers for two years after they leave to see how they implement what they learned.
Wallace and Tarr said they expect the feedback to help them improve and, hopefully, secure additional funding to expand the program beyond New Orleans.
Allison Jordan, a sixth-grade science teacher from Columbia, SC, said that when she gets back to her school, she will be sharing what she learned with her school’s science and social studies faculty. She said that exploring science through the lens of the history museum has been a thrill.
“It’s like walking through Disney World,” she said.