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VISTA at W&M: Learning to teach hands-on science

  • Building a better fish ladder
    Building a better fish ladder
    (Left to right) Jason Etheridge, Brieann Cantrell, Katelyn Ward, Jason Shen, Jaden Newman and Jaelen Franco work on the fish ladder prototype project during a VISTA summer camp at William & Mary last summer.
    Photo by Krista Root

This summer, local elementary teachers will have an opportunity to help shape the future of science education across Virginia.

In June and July, 34 area elementary teachers will gather at William and Mary to participate in a four-week professional development institute designed to shift science instruction from the traditional teacher-led, lecture-driven classroom to a hands-on, problem-based learning environment.

Since 2011 the Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement (VISTA) has conducted Elementary Science Institutes, which are held at four sites across the state, to encourage students and teachers to work as scientific investigators and use innovative, critical thinking to help solve society’s most complex issues.

The institutes begin by teaching educators how to present a specific problem to students and by developing a scenario to engage students in a process to solve it.

The institutes also include a two-week embedded camp for students with high needs from local schools. The camp allows the VISTA-trained teachers to experience working with real students on timely and engaging issues such as how to create a more energy independent Virginia, build a rocket, or clean up a local river.

This year, teachers and students will explore marine ecosystems during the summer camp.

“Our Elementary Science Institutes not only engage high needs students in hands-on scientific discovery, they also equip teachers with the knowledge and skills to return to their schools and reform the way science is taught throughout Virginia,” said VISTA Principal Investigator Donna Sterling.

“Elementary teachers at the William & Mary VISTA Institute leave energized about teaching science in a way that engages their students and prepares their students not only for science classes in middle and high school, but also for college and the workforce.  Our teachers help their students learn how to approach problem solving in the real world, a skill that carries over into all areas of life,” said W&M VISTA Co-Principal Investigator Juanita Jo Matkins, professor of science education.

The institutes have already served more than 250 teachers in total. This summer, they will host over 130 teachers. In addition to the William & Mary campus, the summer institutes occur at George Mason University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Virginia Tech. VISTA exists as a collaboration between the aforementioned schools, as well as the University of Virginia and James Madison University. Oregon State University directs the independent evaluation of the VISTA program.  

Teachers from the following area schools will attend the camp at William & Mary:

 • Deep Creek Central Elementary, Indian River Middle; Chesapeake

• Cesar Tarrant Elementary, Hunter Andrews; Hampton

• Kiln Creek Elementary; Newport News

• Campostella and Tanners Creek Elementary schools; Norfolk

• Victory Elementary; Portsmouth

• Tallwood Elementary; Virginia Beach

• Dare and Magruder Elementary schools; York County

• Metompkin Elementary/Arcadia Middle School; Accomack

• Deep Creek, Sparrow Road Intermediate; Chesapeake

• Westside Elementary; Island of Wight

In addition to the Elementary Science Institutes, VISTA provides other K-12 science professional development activities, including its two Secondary Teacher Program teaching methods courses, the New Science Coordinator Academy, and the Science Education Faculty Academy. VISTA also offers ongoing support to its participant teachers via its coaching program.

So far, VISTA participants have influenced more than 625,000 K-12 students statewide. Over 350 teachers from more than 125 schools representing 80+ Virginia school districts have received VISTA’s professional development.

VISTA is funded by a five-year, $34 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education through the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, which includes a $5.7 million private sector matching requirement.