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VISTA at W&M: Area teachers experiment with teaching science

  • Hands-on learning
    Hands-on learning
    More than 40 area teachers are at William & Mary this month, participating in a four-week institute designed to shift science instruction from the traditional teacher-led classroom to a hands-on, problem-based learning lab.
    VISTA photo

Local elementary teachers have a unique opportunity to help shape the future of science education across Virginia … and beyond. This month, more than 40 area teachers will gather on the William & Mary campus to participate in a four-week institute designed to shift science instruction from the traditional teacher-led classroom to a hands-on, problem-based learning lab.

The institute is part of the Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement (VISTA). VISTA offers teacher professional development to create a community of best practices for science education from kindergarten through college. 

“This project is about taking a systematic approach to improving how science is taught – and learned,” said principal investigator Donna R. Sterling, professor of science education at George Mason University, the lead institution on the project. “There is a body of research that shows the inquiry-based, problem-solving approach improves student learning. The VISTA project is intended to validate that research and further inform the national standard of practice.”

The institutes, now held at four sites across the state, have served more than 150 teachers since 2011. This summer, nearly 130 teachers will participate. The implementation sites include George Mason University, William & Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech.

The institutes include a two-week, embedded camp for high-needs students from local schools, allowing teachers to practice the hands-on approach themselves in a supportive environment before implementing it in their classrooms this school year. 

Energy camp

The institutes begin with teaching how to present a specific problem to students and how to offer a scenario to engage students in a process to solve it. This year, the problem focuses on the impacts of energy extraction, production and use, asking such questions as “How can Virginia become energy independent by 2020?”

Teams of teachers will create problems for students to investigate and solve throughout a 10-day camp. The students will function as scientific investigators and explore such topics as regional energy sources, the feasibility and efficiency of each source, and the environmental impact of energy extraction, production and use.

“We created the institutes with the embedded camps to give teachers experience with the inquiry-based learning approach,” said Juanita Jo Matkins, VISTA co-principal investigator and associate professor of science education at William & Mary. “We’re showing them, not telling them, how to implement problem-based learning in their classrooms.

“We want them to experience the creativity, and fun, of this model of learning,” said Matkins. “This approach supports the science instruction goals of the Virginia Department of Education and also aligns with best practices of the Next Generation Science Standards.”

VISTA coaches support teachers throughout the year, and an evaluation team measures the impact on student achievement with Standards of Learning assessments.

Local participants

Attending are teachers from the following area schools:

• Captain John Smith; Hampton

• Carrsville; Carrsville

• Campostella, Little Creek, Norview, Oceanair and Sewells Point; Norfolk

• Churchland Primary and Intermediate and Churchland Academy; Portsmouth

• Hillpoint Elementary; Suffolk

• Lynnhaven, Salem and Windsor Oaks; Virginia Beach      

• J.B. Blayton, Berkeley (Middle School) and Lois Hornsby (Middle School); Williamsburg

• Magruder; York County

Students from the following elementary schools have been invited to attend:

• Magruder and Waller Mill; York County

• Clara Byrd Baker, Mathew Whaley and James River; Williamsburg/James City County

• Lee Hall; Newport News City

The Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement (VISTA) is a statewide partnership among 60+ Virginia school districts, six Virginia universities and the Virginia Department of Education. Its goal is to translate research-based best teaching practices into improved science teaching and student learning for all students at all levels. The initiative, which is working to build a community of practice across the Commonwealth, is funded by a five-year, $34 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education through the Investing in Innovation program, which includes a $5.7 million private sector matching requirement. Learn more at vista.gmu.edu.

VISTA educational partners include George Mason University, William & Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, James Madison University, the Virginia Department of Education and Oregon State University. VISTA corporate partners include Northrop Grumman, Micron Foundation, Boeing, CGI, and Merck, with additional support provided by Dominion, ExploreLearning, IBM and the Virginia Association of Science Teachers.