Students and teachers discover how entertaining science can be

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“Shout out this word for me,” instructed the teacher pointing to a word on the whiteboard.

“Oxygen,” excitedly shouted the chorus of rising fifth and sixth graders.

“What’s oxygen?” the teacher asked, as other teachers looked on.

“Air,” they shouted.

While this looks and sounds like an elementary school, the enthusiastic teachers and students are actually on a college campus. The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education is hosting them as part of the Elementary Science Institutes, an initiative of the Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement.

Now in its fourth year, the VISTA program is conducted at four sites across the state each summer for teachers to learn scientific investigation and innovative ways to make even the most complex scientific issues fun.

"When something is fun and hands-on and the learning is amongst the children and not just being told by a facilitator, then that learning sticks with you forever," said Ruth Carter, a fourth-grade teacher at Cool Spring Elementary School in Hanover County. “It’s easier because they’re engaged and listening and excited.”

The students aren’t the only ones having fun. During the first week of the four-week program, the 38 participating teachers become the students, studying science with graduate students and learning what it’s like to work in a lab setting. For the next two weeks, the program serves as a camp for at-risk rising fifth- and sixth-graders who may not otherwise have had the opportunity to go to a summer camp. The teachers take turns teaching what they’ve learned to the campers and critiquing one another.

“I love it,” Carter said. “And I can tell you, after the first day I didn’t love it so much because I was overwhelmed. But I found the courage to come back and then the next day got a little better, and the next day it started to make a little more sense and I met some new teachers who were as lost as I was. So then it all started to click.

“And when I go back in the fall, I can say to my students, ‘I know exactly how you feel.’”

While the summer program always deals with science, the topics vary from year to year.

"The themes are picked based on SOL scores in areas we find that they need some assistance with,” said Elizabeth Edmondson, Ph.D., project director of VISTA at VCU. “So we give the teachers this theme and we tell them areas that there are patterns across the state that kids are having trouble with SOLs. And so then the teachers take that big idea and develop their scenarios and their problem question.”

Previous years have covered space exploration, the environment and energy use. This year, the teachers and students are learning about marine life.

Taliya, a rising fifth-grader at Miles Jones, and her friends were excited to watch brine shrimp hatch on a computer screen attached to a microscope.

“I learned about marine-life animals,” she said. “We get to touch squid and we get to see how squid feels — and fish. The fish feels scaly and the squid feels slimy. Today we’re seeing brine shrimp hatch. They’re little.”

The most exciting part of the camp for Taylor, a Fair Oaks student, is that she can carry her newfound knowledge into the fifth grade.

“I think it’ll be cool and when we go back to school, you can take that knowledge from this program and take it so you can actually … know what you are learning about in the next grade,” she said.

The teachers, too, are excited to take what they’ve learned to their classes in the fall.

“A lot of times, as teachers, we are so stuck to what the state tells us that we have to teach, and I think that we’ve kind of gotten away from making it fun for the kids,” said Megan Blunt, a fifth-grade teacher at Glen Lea in Henrico County. “Going through this, they don’t even know that there’s an SOL attached to it. They’re just excited about learning about the ocean and learning about all these scientific methods and it’s just completely different than what we normally teach.

“The main thing is just a way of talking to the kids about science and letting them understand that they’re scientists too and just to communicate as scientists. … I learned so much about how the kids should be communicating when they’re discussing science.”

Rising fifth-graders Taylor, Trinity, Aniya and Taliya watch brine shrimp hatch. Photo by Patrick Fernandez
Rising fifth-graders Taylor, Trinity, Aniya and Taliya watch brine shrimp hatch. Photo by Patrick Fernandez

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