As a group of elementary school students worked on a hypothetical problem of creating an environmentally friendly resort centered around sea turtles, a Virginia legislator stopped by to give them some words of encouragement and share a real-life story about when a turtle was the center of discussion in the Virginia General Assembly.
The Eastern box turtle was once under consideration to become the Commonwealth’s state reptile, Del. Brenda Pogge (R-96th) told the students. However, during discussion on the House floor, someone pointed out that the Latin name of that particular creature might make it a more appropriate choice for a state to the south: Terrapene carolina carolina.
“We did not decide on a state reptile,” Pogge said. “We have a state fish and a state bird, but no state reptile. So if you have any good suggestions …”
As soon as the words left her mouth, hands shot up across the room. Pogge could understand their enthusiasm; she experienced something similar as a child.
“I went to a summer enrichment program as a sixth grader that just gave me a lifelong love of learning and caused me to want to impart that to my own kids,” she said.
Pogge, who represents parts of James City and York Counties, was one of two Virginia state legislators to visit a Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement (VISTA) Elementary Science Institute hosted at the William & Mary School of Education July 6-23. Pogge visited on July 10, and Del. Monty Mason (D-93rd) visited July 17. Mason, a member of William & Mary’s Class of 1989, represents Williamsburg and parts of Newport News, James City and York Counties.
The institute gave teachers from across the Tidewater area and Eastern Shore the training to develop hands-on, problem-based projects and then offered those teachers a chance to apply what they had learned during a two-week camp for fourth to sixth grade students from Newport News, Williamsburg/James City County and York County.
“It’s a great program – helping teachers learn to teach better, increasing their enthusiasm and excitement for the topic and bringing children and exposing them to the sciences, making learning fun,” said Mason. “That’s the key.”
Funded by a five-year U.S. Department of Education grant in 2010, VISTA is a statewide program that includes more than 80 school districts and six universities. In addition to the Elementary Science Institute, VISTA has offered programs for middle and high school teachers, science coordinators and science education faculty.
Throughout the program’s five years at W&M, VISTA has served 12 school districts, 57 schools and 153 teachers, said Juanita Jo Matkins, professor of science education and VISTA co-principal investigator. Across all of the sites throughout the state, nearly 800 teachers have participated in the elementary and secondary programs, and approximately 750 students have attended VISTA camps.
“That’s a lot of campers,” said Matkins, “a lot of campers who we hope came out of camp convinced that they were scientists.”
Although some sites around the state will still offer VISTA programs beyond 2015, this is the last year that W&M will serve as a VISTA site. Matkins, who brought the program to the university, will be retiring in the fall.
“I can’t think of a better way to be looking at retirement than to be finishing up this project,” she said. “This has been very satisfying for me because my goal when I came into higher education was to have a positive influence on science education.”
Through the research component of VISTA, Matkins was able to see that goal fulfilled as the numbers have proven the program’s impact on student achievement, especially among students with special needs and those from low-income families.
Matkins attributes much of VISTA’s success to its problem-based learning approach as well as the program’s emphasis on treating students like scientists.
“Treating elementary students as though they have the ability to figure things out somehow encourages critical thinking and mature reasoning,” said Matkins, “so the kids get a lot out of that, and the teachers learn that this really works with kids.”
Learning with legislators
Matkins invited the legislators to visit the VISTA camp at William & Mary because she wanted to give the delegates a chance to see what’s going on in science education “so that they can support the best practices in science education at the level of the general assembly,” she said.
“If at some point we can leverage their sense of partnership with us into something that takes these ideas somewhere in the future that would be great, but in general to educate them – and to give them a good time, too,” Matkins said.
And a good time they had. Both Pogge and Mason had the chance to interact with students involved in two projects: one focused on the “Turtle Cay” resort and another that centered on creating a new, sustainable country for Busch Gardens. The legislators were also able to talk with teachers and hear about the challenges they face as they try to engage students in science while also dealing with funding concerns and the pressures of SOL preparation.
Ashley Strachan, a fifth grade teacher at Bethel Manor Elementary School in York County, participated in VISTA for the first time this year.
“Math and science are kind of my favorite subjects, but I didn’t really know how to teach them,” she said. “I didn’t have a lot of materials, so a teammate and I decided, let’s go learn about science.”
The VISTA experience was a “real eye opener,” said Strachan, adding that she’ll be using what she learned in the coming year, treating the students like scientists and “asking them more questions than telling them answers and having them just really learn from each other.”
Both Mason and Pogge said they were impressed by what they saw at the camp.
“It’s been really exciting to be here and watch the enthusiasm that the teachers and the students bring together corporately in this,” said Pogge. “It’s an adventure for both of them, and it’s contagious because I’ve caught it, as well. … Their gears are turning, light bulbs are going off, they’re getting inquisitive, they’re thinking and it’s always exciting to watch a child learn. This has been a platform, really, for them to express, for them to learn, even in two weeks – to gain that love for learning that they will get sparked here during this experience.”
‘Actually pretty cool’
As Mason walked among the students on the final day of their camp, he greeted some familiar faces – one child recalled dunking him at a festival, another had asked for his signed photo – and listened to their pitches for proposed turtle habitats and amusement park additions. He asked questions about their projects, some of which he himself has had to deal with on another level, such as “How do you make people care?”
“I was impressed with the level of work that they were doing and the knowledge base, and it’s also really neat that they do the work but then they have to present it to their parents and to us,” he said. “That’s a really big deal because that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. So they’ve learned about it, but now they have to have the confidence to tell people about it and explain it and answer random questions from people like me who want to know more. I’ve really enjoyed being a part of it.”
Pete Overton, a rising sixth grader at Queens Lake Middle School, enjoyed his experience with VISTA, too. This was his first year participating in the camp.
“It was actually pretty cool because I learned stuff I didn’t know on how sea turtles use moonlight to go to the ocean,” he said.
Before VISTA, he thought that “science was OK,” he said. But the camp upgraded his opinion of science to “interesting.”
“And now that I have a better understanding, I can probably get better grades,” he said.