Sometimes you can be taught all kinds of material, but if you don’t know what practical use it has, it may make no difference.
That practical application is the idea behind a series of lectures designed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists, said V. Arthur Hammon, JPL program coordinator, who presented those lectures to about 30 area teachers or soon-to-be teachers Tuesday at the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough.
“We’re the ones who do all the robotic missions,” Hammon said. “We developed some curricula materials that look at the art of science and the art of teaching.”
The six units of instruction developed by the JPL have story arcs to them and are intended to allow students to see science through the eyes of a scientist. The units of study take a what, who and how approach to instruction.
There has been a focus on the teaching of the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM courses) for the past few years.
Michele Sparks, a fifth-grade science and math teacher at Indian Springs Elementary School, Kingsport, who was in attendance Tuesday, said dedicated STEM teachers are needed in many schools.
She was very excited to attend the seminar, because to get this kind of quality hands-on materials and up-to-date instruction was invaluable, she said.
“We’re going to walk away from here with a great deal of teaching material we can apply,” Sparks said.
Sparks hopes to be considered a STEM teacher next year.
Hammon said one way to make science relevant to students was to make it contemporary rather than a study of what someone did hundreds of years ago.
“We recognized from talking with teachers that there was a need for biographical material of current scientists and engineers,” Hammon said. “You know, normally they study Galileo. ... ”
The JPL has access to many scientists, so those scientists were tapped to tell about their jobs as they relate to their lives for purposes of the instructional materials.
Hammon has been conducting these instructional seminars for years and has compiled data by surveying teachers right after the seminar and again at the end of the school year to gauge effectiveness of the program.
“The data seem clear that teachers are able to integrate into the curriculum, and the real purpose is to take the work of science and make it visible through NASA,” Hammon said.
“You can teach one thing, but it’s nice to know how it’s used,” Hammon said.
Jack Rhoton, executive director of the Center of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Education at East Tennessee State University, was instrumental in setting up the JPL conference, which resumes today.
He said the typical method of instruction involved reading, writing and speaking to communicate learned ideas. But the JPL curriculum offers more unique hands-on activities. Sometimes it is difficult for teachers to find new material to help in teaching.
“Many of the teachers have a deep desire to search out instructional practices,” Rhoton said. “But there’s not just one strategy that works for all students.”