VISTA of the Commonwealth

Hands-on science

Hands-on science:  Two students at the 2011 VISTA summer science camp work together on a project designed to measure the turbidity of water.

Six Virginia universities join forces for better K-12 STEM education

Virginia’s beaches are in trouble. Swimmers are getting sick. The water looks ugly. The governor’s scientists have no idea what’s wrong. Then the governor hears about a two-week convention of young scientists—very young scientists—at William & Mary’s School of Education. He issues a desperate plea for help.

That’s the hypothetical scenario that was given to fourth and fifth graders who participated in a 2011 summer science camp offered through the Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement (VISTA) project.

This STEM-outreach project is funded by a $34 million grant from the United States Department of Education. VISTA aims to improve science teaching and student learning in Virginia schools.

STEM OutreachVISTA programs take place on the campuses of the three main partner universities for the project: William & Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University and George Mason University, which heads the project. Three other universities are also serving as partners on the project: University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and James Madison University.

The project includes four major aspects. William & Mary is heavily involved in the first two, which are training for elementary teachers, which include the summer science camps for elementary students, and training for secondary, provisionally licensed science teachers. The third and fourth areas involve training for school district science supervisors and for science education faculty in Virginia.

Juanita Jo Matkins, VISTA project manager for William & Mary, said that the purpose of the camps is to train elementary school teachers.

The project also offers coaches—mostly retired elementary teachers—who visit the classrooms of the elementary school teachers during the academic year to provide assistance and support. The coaches will also help teachers connect with content experts.

Scientists serve as content experts

Four Virginia scientists participate in VISTA as content experts for the teachers. The biology expert is a member of William & Mary’s faculty, Professor Paul Heideman. The geology/earth science expert is at JMU. The chemistry expert is at VCU, and the physics expert is at Mason.

The camps take place in the School of Education’s new building and are aimed at a diverse population of students, including those from schools with many low-income families.

Matkins said that the camps make elementary teachers into “true believers.”

“They begin the journey of accepting that, one—kids are really capable of good thinking and can understand a lot, and two—that ‘this is a very doable thing for me, as a teacher. I can do this,’” she said. “They begin to believe that they can do science in a way that the Virginia Standards of Learning and our national standards recommend science be done.”

The second major area that William & Mary is involved in is induction and coaching for secondary pre-service teachers in science.

“What that means is that we train people who are hired to be science teachers, but who have little science education training,” said Matkins.

Two courses in science methodology

As part of this project, William & Mary provides newly licensed teachers with two courses in science methodology, satisfying the coursework requirement for licensure. The first course focuses on general methodology and competency and helps teachers gain self-confidence in teaching science effectively, said Matkins. The second course focuses on teaching diverse student populations and the use of technology in the classroom.

Provisionally licensed teachers also receive a coach who is an experienced teacher in their subject area. Coaches actually go into classrooms with the teachers, and they sometimes serve as a liaison and advocate for the teacher. The coaches remain with their teachers for two years.

One reason for the VISTA project is the need expressed at the state level for an increased number of students going into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors in college, as epitomized by Gov. Bob McDonnell’s call for teachers to emphasize careers in STEM. There are several reasons for focusing on trying to boost those numbers, Matkins said.

One is economic. Matkins noted that the gap between the numbers and percentages of Chinese students entering STEM careers and Americans is vast and growing. These STEM students are innovators, company-starters, economy-drivers, she said.

Another reason is security. The technology that helps keep us safe is science-based, and Matkins points out that national security requires measures implemented by U. S. citizens who are scientifically skilled.

Matkins says a third reason is a need for general science literacy. The adults in our future – children of today – will need to understand complex scientific issues. Matkins named the current global warming topic as one aspect of science that illustrates the need for a more science-literate America.

Knowing science by getting to know scientists

“We believe if we provide an experience close to what scientists do that it has the potential to be the richest experience these kids and these teachers can have,” Matkins said. “At its best, science is based on evidence, yes, but also it is creative in many ways. When these campers determined how to perform an experiment to test the quality of water, they were creating a way to answer a question.”

“Teachers and campers were surprised to discover how creative science really is! They also learned the importance of evidence, and of collaboration with other scientists. The teachers really learned these ideas thoroughly while teaching the camp. Ask a professor here at the College—the best way to learn something is to have to teach it!,” she said.  Ideation