Earthworms, tsunamis and dance moves

| June 18, 2012

More than 80 regional elementary school teachers flocked to Lynchburg College on Thursday and Friday to participate in a series of hands-on workshops demonstrating innovative approaches to teaching integrated science, technology engineering and math lessons (STEM) in grades 4 and 5.

Organized by Sweet Briar College in collaboration with Lynchburg College, the “Central Virginia Consortium Conference” was the result of a 19-month project funded by a $199,502 grant from the Virginia Department of Education. During the 2011-12 school year, 17 local teachers were trained in inquiry pedagogy and developed, implemented, assessed and reviewed experiment-driven lessons to create six fully integrated STEM units.

In one lesson, fourth-grade teachers learned how to introduce kids to “critters” and their habitat using live earthworms. While the program is all about hands-on learning, books are sometimes needed to ease into the subject. Lani Patrick, Campbell County schoolteacher and one of three instructors in the workshop, said she used a semi-scientific children’s novel to alleviate one of her student’s discomfort with worms.

“After reading [“The Diary of a Worm”], the student told me he liked worms now,” she said.

Before being confronted with the real thing, students — represented by their teachers — practiced their measuring and observation skills with gummy worms and pieces of string. The lesson, which culminates in an “earthworm exhibit,” also includes taking pictures of the project with digital cameras.

Upstairs, another fourth-grade workshop featured the use of tennis shoes to test the impact of various materials attached to shoe soles on the ease of motion. Teachers received a Ziploc bag filled with items such as sand paper, terry cloth or tin foil. They then had to choose one material each, attach it to the sole of the shoe and pull a rubber band that was fastened to the shoe, measuring how far they could extend the rubber band before the shoe moved across the floor.

A few doors down the hall, the third fourth-grade lesson had teachers racing matchbox cars equipped with magnets. As the magnet sped through a copper coil, an electric current was measured using Fluke multi-meters to learn about induction and electrical engineering.

Spread out through three different classrooms in Thompson Hall, each workshop featured two to three instructors and 10 to 15 “student” teachers divided into small groups.

“We don’t even have to do anything, the teachers are doing everything independently,” said Hank Yochum, director of Sweet Briar’s engineering program and one of the organizers of the STEM project.

Project director Jill Granger, who teaches chemistry at Sweet Briar, agrees. “Of all the things I’ve worried about leading up today, the teachers’ workshops were never a worry,” she said. “We had one hundred percent confidence in their ability to lead these new STEM lessons and to effectively impress on these new teachers the impact of inquiry.”

But that’s not to say that the professors haven’t been busy. The project launched in March of 2011, so Yochum and Granger, along with adjunct biology professor Arlene Vinion-Dubiel, have already done the bulk of their work. Now that the lessons are designed and reviewed, the teachers are ready to implement them in the coming school year.

Aside from planning the conference, Granger spent the past few weeks finalizing the six instructional videos that accompany each of the lessons, and she’s grateful for the support they received from their partner college.

“We couldn’t have done this the way we did it without Lynchburg College,” she said.

The fifth-grade workshops (“Earth Shaking Tsunamis,” “Dance by Numbers” and “Cookie Mystery”) were held in Elliot & Rosel Schewel Hall, home to the communication studies program and the Donovan Media Development Center, both of which were central to the video production.

During Friday’s lessons, three of the classrooms in Schewel Hall were transformed into science labs. In one of them, teachers used trays of water to prove that water depth is in fact important when it comes to tsunamis — waves, they found, decrease in speed as water becomes shallower. In another classroom, participants mixed various “powders” — such as cornstarch, sugar or flour — with water, vinegar or iodine to learn to identify the components of their “mystery cookies,” an experiment aimed at testing unknown mixtures for the presence of key ingredients.

The most energetic lesson came about through the combination of two apparently unrelated subjects: dance and math. Inspired by Pillsbury’s Dancin’ Doughboy, Lynchburg City Schools teacher Carrie Lewis, along with Bedford County teacher Kelly Steele, created a lesson utilizing dance choreography to teach patterns. Each dance move in the choreography is its own element with a designated number, Lewis explained.

After being introduced to the concept through observation, students create their own choreography to a song they choose, along with a graph measuring the length of each dance move and predicting the number of pattern repetitions needed to fit the song.

“We made it up. Nowhere else in the U.S. does this lesson exist,” Lewis said.

It does now, right here, in Lynchburg. Beginning in September, fifth-graders across the city and surrounding counties will be dancing by numbers. And with all of the STEM lessons and instructional videos available online, Lewis’ unique approach to math is sure to become a hit in schools across the country.

 

Contact: Janika Carey

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