July 11, 2008

Before You Can Teach, You Need to Learn

By Jonathan Cribbs, The Beaufort Gazette, S.C.

Jul. 11--Hand-held radio squawks ricocheted off the walls of Whale Branch Middle School on Thursday, and from the back door, it sounded faintly like a temporary NATO base had been set up inside.

"Bravo ... Bravo, Echo, Alfa."

"Charlie, Oscar, Uniform, November ..."

The ruckus -- words from NATO's phonetic language -- was coming from teachers learning the language of air traffic controllers. The language is part of a new science and math curriculum designed by Project Lead the Way -- part of the Beaufort County School District's new gravitation toward improved science, technology, engineering and math education in northern Beaufort County.

The curriculum, written for grades three through five, is being piloted in Beaufort County with the eventual goal of spreading it across the nation. The curriculum focuses on teaching math and sciences concepts -- particularly those related to engineering -- in a hands-on way that shows students how those concepts apply in life. It's supposed to be the opposite of rote, abstract instruction most students encounter in math and science classrooms, said Lola Whitworth, a Project Lead the Way master teacher who is spending this week teaching the curriculum to 16 district teachers.

"We need to teach our students to problem solve," Whitworth said. "Technology is one of the fastest-growing (fields) right now."

Project Lead the Way is a national, nonprofit education program that creates hands-on classes for middle and high school students in science and engineering. The program hopes to increase the number of students seeking out engineering and technology programs in college, and stop the high number of college engineering students who struggle and switch degrees.

The air traffic control exercise is designed to teach students about communication -- something, along with teamwork skills, today's students seem to lack, said Vincent Van Brunt, a chemical engineering professor at the University of South Carolina working with Project Lead the Way. They also learn about degrees (air traffic controllers will often give degrees of approach to pilots about to land) and aerodynamics -- in fourth grade.

"Practical motivation is one of the key elements of success in math and science," he said. "This provides a tie to the real world."

Teachers, for instance, designed a space colony together this week, sorting out engineering issues that would arise in such a situation. If that exercise was replicated in a classroom with students, a teacher would use it to illustrate concepts ranging from measurement to percentages, Whitmore said. Greg DiOrio, who will be lead teacher at the new science, math and technology magnet school at Beaufort Elementary School next year, compared it to a science fair.

"Inquiry is the No. 1 thing. Let the kids figure it out," he said. Usually "we ask a question, we wait 30 seconds, we give them the answer. Not going to happen here."

Whale Branch Elementary School third- and fourth-graders will begin using the curriculum next year, and the district plans to expand it to other schools, including Lady's Island Elementary School, the following year, said Bill Evans, a district official. Whale Branch and Davis elementary fifth-graders are merging with Whale Branch Middle next year as the school adopts a new science, math and technology-infused curriculum.

Lady's Island Middle School sixth-graders also will have a technology-infused curriculum next year, and the school will merge with fifth-graders from Coosa and Lady's Island elementary schools the following year. Project Lead the Way is using the teachers this week to see how the new pilot elementary curriculum works in a classroom, Whitmore said.

"We want to take back anything the teachers feel need to be added," she said. The curriculum should be finalized and published for member schools in October. Project Lead the Way works with about 3,000 schools nationwide.

The pilot program will work in Beaufort County, said Rosalind Singleton, a fifth-grade science and math teacher at Davis Elementary.

"(Students will) be able to retain something because they're doing something related to everyday living instead of reading out of a book," she said.


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