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W&L Hosts Summer Institute for Local Science Teachers

For children across Rockbridge County, school is still out for the summer. For their teachers, however, it’s back to the classroom. During July, eight Rockbridge County teachers were the pupils as they worked with Washington and Lee University faculty to strengthen how they teach science.

As part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Grant (HHMI), W&L hosted its third Summer Teacher Institute, where teachers of the third grade to fifth grade worked with faculty from biology, chemistry and education to improve not only their background knowledge but also their methods.

“We want to get them more comfortable with the background science so that when they are in the classroom and they get that random question, they feel confident,” said Bill Hamilton, associate professor of biology and one of the leaders of the institute.

The ultimate goal of the program is to get children excited about learning and about science. According to a 2010 study by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s research agency, the U.S. has seen a significant national decline in the number of college graduates with degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“A huge issue in the United States in particular is that kids aren’t going into science,” Hamilton said. “So why not get them earlier on?”

The Summer Teacher Institute emphasizes inquiry-based science by bringing investigational labs into the classroom, where teachers can drive learning by getting the students to ask the questions.

“That is the part of science that I find the most exciting and fun and gets the students hooked,” said Helen I’Anson, HHMI program director and head of the W&L Biology Department.  “So we designed this program to give them more science content while also teaching them the way to ask a hypothesis and test it.

“Education research suggests that if you engage people in their own learning,” I’Anson continues, “then they are more likely to continue that for the rest of their lives.”

As part of the three-day workshops’s theme, “Plants Matter,” Hamilton and Fred LaRiviere, associate professor of chemistry, talked with the teachers about molecules, matter and why plants are important. Along with these lessons, which teachers identified three years ago as weak areas for them, the program took the eight elementary-school teachers through experiments that they can re-create with their students.

“I see this as kind of rejuvenating some of the teachers,” Hamilton said. “Some of them haven’t taken science in quite some time, so it’s getting them thinking about it again — coming up with new ways to teach the old lessons.”

After the program ended, the teachers felt as though they had a stronger background knowledge, as well as new experiments to take back to their kids to engage them and get them excited about science.

“Kids really learn best from hands-on activities and visuals,” said Michelle Hughes, a third-grade teacher at Central Elementary. “It will help them see that they can be scientists.”

The summer institute was funded by a $1.3 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). Since receiving the grant in 2008, W&L has hosted three Summer Teacher Institutes as well as many science lessons for children at local elementary schools.

— Campbell Massie