In lab, they're part of experiment

Third- and fourth-graders are in a trial run aimed at better science learning.

Published March 27, 2007

LAND O'LAKES - Pam Carr's third- and fourth-graders love the days they take classes in Lake Myrtle Elementary School's science lab.

Their teacher assigns them jobs, such as materials manager and engineer, distributes equipment and supplies, then lets them discover.

"It's not just talking and learning by listening," said Lucas Getchell, 10, as he and his partners talked about how they could best weather a piece of brick in 30 minutes. "It's touching and feeling and doing."

Dominic Telesco, also 10, jumped into the conversation.

"It's hands-on and exploding things and awesome," Dominic effused, as Carr approached with guiding questions to prod the group's discussion.

What Carr knows, but the kids don't, is that as they conduct experiments, they're part of an experiment themselves.

Lake Myrtle and 20 other Pasco County elementary schools are participating in a three-year study, conducted by the University of South Florida and paid for by the National Science Foundation, to determine the best way to teach science to younger children. It's an important question, as several reports show U.S. students lagging behind children in other nations when it comes to math and science knowledge.

Gov. Charlie Crist has found the matter so important that shortly after his inauguration, he announced the creation of the Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and the establishment of the Office for Math and Science in the Department of Education.

"We want to know what works in science education, particularly in elementary schools," said Bridget Cotner, project manager for the USF study.

They're focusing on Teaching SMART, a method developed by Girls Inc. of Rapid City, S.D. The program trains teachers how to conduct hands-on activities, ask probing questions and generally get more comfortable with science lessons so that, in turn, kids will learn more science and enjoy it, too.

"If we have positive findings, we plan on writing a scale-up program" to make the study bigger, Cotner said, noting the effort could go statewide or even bigger. "There's definitely room for growth."

The initial phase, now in its second year, gives 11 Pasco schools the Teaching SMART treatment, with advisers training teachers and monitoring their lessons. Ten other schools serve as the control group, just teaching the regular way.

Pizzo Elementary School, located at the USF campus in Tampa, also is participating in the study.

Already, the team is pleased with the results, based on the improvement between a fall 2005 set of testing data and a spring 2006 followup.

"They started off at exactly the same place," Cotner said. "In the spring, we could see a general positive trend. It wasn't statistically significant, but we could see there was already a bit of growth happening with our Teaching SMART schools."

Much of the credit goes to trainers like Sandy Feldman, a veteran Pasco educator who joined the grant team to implement the study. At Lake Myrtle, she went so far as to convince the administration to create a science "lab," where teachers store science materials and can conduct many of their lessons.

For the study, Feldman made clear that she doesn't tell the teachers what to teach: The county curriculum and state standards remain in place.

"My job is simply to support the teachers," she said.

For less-seasoned educators, that means modeling lessons, offering an extra set of hands in the classroom and, from time to time, critiquing lessons. For the veterans, like Carr, it's more sitting back and taking notes, and offering advice when asked.

The other day Feldman remained at her desk, scribbling thoughts on white paper as Carr led the weathering lesson. Carr had asked Feldman to see whether she asks enough open-ended questions.

"These are not for a file or anything," Feldman said. "They're just to help."

Carr circulated through the classroom among the small groups of students. She talked to them about the effects of wind and rain, showing pictures from the Badlands National Park and asking the kids how they think the rock formations got that way.

Then she wondered whether they could get a similar effect using a piece of brick, a covered plastic jar and some water. The students competed with each other to figure out the best way to weather the brick.

Dominic suggested covering the brick with water and putting it under the hot sun. Lucas proposed putting the brick in the jar and putting it on a slant, to let gravity take its toll.

Carr noted that they had just 30 minutes, and put forth a question: "Do you think if we put the rock in water and made it move, it might have some effect?"

That question - maybe it was a hint - led the groups to arrive at the same solution, shaking the brick in the water-filled jar to mimic the effect of driving rain or strong waves.

"Dude! Look at it!" Royjames Nelson, 9, exclaimed as his team's brick crumbled. "It's like a dirty swamp."

As far as he was concerned, his teacher was teaching smart.

"You can make inventions and do science projects. You can do anything," Royjames said. "We've been here in the science lab a lot of times. We like it."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com (813) 909-4614 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505 ext. 4614. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.