Teachers get a hands-on feel for advancing next-gen science standards

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PITTSFIELD — What do 10,000 dominoes, puppets of bats and bees, and maps of Mt. Greylock have in common?

They could all be used as teaching tools in new hands-on science-based lessons to be piloted this fall in local kindergarten through Grade 8 classrooms. For the record, dominoes can be used to physically represent a transfer of energy; the puppets can be used to teach young children about pollinators and maps can be used to show the change in geography over time.

Last week, a group of 24 Berkshire County educators gathered at Miss Hall's School in Pittsfield to take place in a week-long graduate level course taught by faculty from the Great Barrington-based Flying Cloud Institute. Over the course of the week teachers from different schools collaborated to create science units that shift instruction from being teacher-oriented to student-oriented, where kids are leading scientific investigations, communicating with each other, sharing hypotheses and evidence, with teachers focused on guiding them through the process versus telling them answers.

"It makes so much sense, but it's going to be difficult to let [my students] come up with questions instead of me coming up with questions for them. But I think it's more exciting for them when they're discovering for themselves," said Liz Alibozek, a second-grade teacher at Hoosac Valley Elementary School.

At the end of the week, the course participants presented their lesson plans-in-progress to a panel of other local educators, administrators and curriculum experts for feedback and suggestions on how to make sure students were leading inquiries and connecting skills to applications.

"We tend to want to do as many hands-on activities as possible versus having the students develop an actual skill set," said Justin Luciani, a fifth-grade math and STEM teacher at Hoosac Valley Middle School. "For me, that's the big thing — being a facilitator for learning."

For teachers who have been in their trade for a while, the concept of coaching students towards autonomy from the sidelines instead of spouting facts at the head of the class is a significant change in the approach to classroom teaching.

Flying Cloud Executive Director Maria Rundle said that when the next generation science standards and new practices were rolled out in 2016 via state mandates, it was a sign that the state was "moving from measuring what students know to what students can do. So this is a huge shift."

Rundle said that while the frameworks were laid out in documents, "it didn't really come with a lot of resources from the state."

Flying Cloud and its partners then stepped up to help educators get a better sense of what the standards are and how they can be taught in an engaging and meaningful way. A county-wide professional learning network was established, and with the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and Southern Berkshire Regional School District, the organization applied for an secured a Massachusetts Mathematics and Science Partnership grant in 2017, in the amount of $46,000, to cover not only the cost of organizing and offering a professional development course but affording a stipend to participants who successfully complete the program.

Last week's program was supported through a continuation grant, which helped the program offering four additional slot over the previous year. But the funding for the state program has dissolved. "So we're looking into ways to continue to fund these opportunities for teachers, which is crucial in rural areas where the science teacher is often the only science teacher in their school," Rundle said.

Flying Cloud Director of STEM Education Lisa Lesser said she is available to local schools to do a teaching residency to help science educators implement next generation science lessons, which often integrate other subjects, like writing, mathematics and history.

"It's the scientific mindset that we want to bring to everyone," Lesser said.

To learn more about professional development and classroom support through Flying Cloud, visit https://flyingcloudinstitute.org/programs/smart-schools.


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