Do-it-yourself learning

Hands-on: Earth/Science Systems, a model program developed with NASA in Anne Arundel County schools, gives students the tools and allows them freedom to build their knowledge.

November 09, 2001|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

When her students started predicting the weather better than the certified meteorologists on television, science teacher Angie Holocker knew she was on to something.

When her students built an ocean and a beach in a pan, and used it to explain why Assateague Island separated from Ocean City, Holocker knew this was a lesson they wouldn't forget.

"It's a constructivist approach," Holocker said of her new method of teaching science at Northeast High School in Pasadena. She gives students the tools and lets them build knowledge on their own.

"None of them have had a science class taught on concepts," she said. "There's none of that monotonous note-taking. There's no spoon-feeding."

In this class, called Earth/Space Systems, the students feed themselves. The course is a departure from memorization and precooked experiments that have defined - and hobbled - science instruction for decades.

"Most of what we learned, we forgot," said Dixie Stack, Anne Arundel County's director of curriculum. "These kids will remember this 10 years from now when they look at the weather page."

With help from scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, the county developed this hands-on way to teach Earth and space science that is quickly becoming a state and national model.

The course expanded into all but one of Anne Arundel's 12 high schools this year. Carroll County began a pilot program in one high school this fall. A Frederick County program will enroll 150 students starting in the spring. Montgomery County is developing a course based on the Anne Arundel model, and 30 science teachers from Maine went to Goddard over the summer to study it.

"Anne Arundel County is the leader," said Robert Gabrys, head of NASA's education office at Goddard, where the county's Earth/Space Systems teachers get two weeks of training every summer. "We were interested in helping Anne Arundel County so we could develop a model for doing this on a large scale."

Though the program is in its first or second year at most county high schools, teachers say they see students learning and remembering more about science than before. The students say that's because they've never taken a course quite like this.

"Usually, science labs do basic things," said Northeast junior Kelly Sartwell, 16. "Here we do stuff that we can see on a bigger picture. I'm not big into science, but now I understand the weather on TV."

Three years ago, Anne Arundel didn't have a course centered on Earth and space. But educators knew that a statewide high school assessment test on the subject would be administered soon, and they were eager to design a course from the ground up, literally.

To avoid the traditional pitfalls of science instruction, they wanted to make computers an integral part of the classroom and to have the students do what scientists do, using the same raw data.

"The goal is for students to do the same activities in our labs as the scientists do in their labs," said Rochelle Slutskin, the county's science coordinator. "The kids go out and get the data and tell their teacher what's going to happen, how things are going to be affected - from climate changes to crops to world hunger to the stock market. It's kids looking at big events and analyzing them to see how it affects their lives."

In the weather unit, , students spend several days learning about pressure systems, clouds, the jet stream and storms. They gather the cloud coverage data from GOES-8 satellite images, then compare it with data from the National Weather Service Web site. After studying the real-time weather, they predict the weekend weather - and often nail it.

"They were really competitive, with themselves and with TV," said Holocker, the Northeast teacher. "We're using actual satellite data, and once they realize, `Omigosh, this is what's happening right now,' it makes it a lot more exciting."

When, in the tides unit, students construct a makeshift beach and ocean, they pulsate the water to make waves. Then they watch their beaches erode. Most of her students hadn't known that Ocean City and Assateague Island were once the same land mass, but the lab gets the point across, Holocker said. (The Ocean City Inlet was created in 1933 when a powerful coastal hurricane cut through the barrier island.)

All of this - from pulling data off the Internet to the messy lab work - takes place in the same classroom. Ten computers line one side of the room; traditional lab benches line the other. In the middle are student workstations.

It's an ideal way to teach, but it's not cheap. Anne Arundel has recently upgraded about half of the science laboratories in its 12 high schools at a cost of about $5 million each. The state picks up half of the cost, as it does for all new high school science labs. The county hopes to finish the rest of its labs in the next few years.

"Science is not really about memorization," said Slutskin, the science coordinator. "It's about understanding big ideas. A person learns through experiences and through putting ideas together, and we've tried to tailor our curriculum in that way."

She said the philosophy is trickling down as far as third-grade science, where students are doing lab work almost every day. It's as simple as separating mixtures and making ice cream and observing the night sky, but it makes the children feel like scientists.

"Every time you look at a class of these students, you figure that's the future," said NASA's Gabrys. "There's always the problem of getting students to look at science and math careers, and if we can show them the excitement of this work, it might even influence them."

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