Mississippi science teachers receive innovative pointers

By Marquita Brown
The Clarion-Ledger
June 27, 2011
(article reprinted from The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com)

Artis Wheatley (from left) of South Pike Junior High, Laterica Hudson of Whitten Middle School and Jennifer Bordelon of St. Joe High School take part in an experiment to determine which of several materials best removes oil from water. The experiment is part of MAST, or Mississippi Academy for Science Teaching at Jackson State University. / Brian Albert Broom/The Clarion-Ledger

The  problem was simple: Fred’s lifesaver was beneath his overturned boat, and he needed rescuing.

But in this case, “Fred” was a gummy worm, his boat a paper cup and the lifesaver a piece of candy.

His fate rested with elementary teachers, who had to come up with steps to rescue Fred and then use a similar approach in a dozen other scientific scenarios – just as their students would during introductions to the scientific method.

About 100 elementary and secondary teachers from across the state spent the past three weeks participating in the Mississippi Academy for Science Teaching at Jackson State University, also known as Project MAST.

Grants totaling $9.2 million paid to bring teachers and professors from across the country to Jackson to help the local educators.

The Mississippi teachers who participated in the academy received about $1,000 worth of equipment and other items to take back to their classrooms. All of the teachers learned about physics, chemistry and astronomy, as well as age-appropriate and low-cost ways to share those lessons with their students.

In the sessions, the teachers saw firsthand how difficult it is to just sit and listen versus doing hands-on activities, said Lerenda Benjamin, a fifth-grade teacher at Brown Elementary in Jackson. “We were able to see immediate relevance … of how we can incorporate it in the classroom,” she said.

The idea is that when classes resume this fall, the teachers will be prepared to give better science instruction. That’s critical in Mississippi, where students lag behind the rest of the country on national standardized tests.

Mississippi students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, lag behind the rest of the country. Scores from the 2009 science test, the most recent year available, show 59 percent of Mississippi eighth-graders scored lower than basic, which is below grade level.

Students struggle on the state standardized tests, too. Fifth- and eighth-graders take a state standardized science test. In 2010, about 45 percent of fifth-graders scored proficient or advanced, and 43 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or above. That means more than half of the public school students who took those tests did not have grade-level understanding of the subject.

For high school students, passing the state standardized Biology 1 test is one of the graduation requirements. Last year, about 86.2 percent of the first-time test takers passed the test, but 65 percent scored proficient or above. Since the test is not as difficult as the national assessments, students who pass still may not have a grade-level understanding of the subject.

In schools across the state, science instruction – especially the earth, space and physical sciences – tends to be a lower priority because math and reading are the primary subjects tested, said Mehri Fudavi, the academy’s project director and a physics professor at JSU.

Another problem is a shortage of teachers who want to teach science and are willing to work in rural districts.

“There are an array of state-level and campus-level programs available to address teacher shortages in critical subject areas like science,” Al Rankins, associate commissioner of academic and student affairs for the state College Board, said in an email. “Unfortunately, many students with interest in the sciences are opting for majors leading to jobs with more lucrative starting salaries like engineering and health sciences.

“It is critical that we have good science teachers in our classrooms and we continue work to address the shortages in this area.”

There is also a lack of science teachers willing to go to critical shortage areas, which include school districts in the Delta, said Daphne Buckley, deputy superintendent of quality professionals and special schools at the state Department of Education.

Officials try to recruit Mississippi graduates with science teaching certificates and recruit from other states as well. Teach for America also helps provide teachers for critical shortage subject areas, she said.

A task force, formed by a legislative mandate, is focusing on the state’s limited number of teachers, Buckley said.

The academy can help “school districts’ capacity to offer science courses, particularly in rural areas where a school may have three or four science teachers, maybe one of whom is full time because the others are half-time coaches as well,” said James Cooper, project coordinator.

Several teachers have used the program to improve their knowledge of physics or chemistry and add that endorsement to their licenses, he said. Then schools can offer students more physical science courses.

“We count that definitely as one of our accomplishments,” Cooper said.

Taking more higher-level physical science classes would also help students handle higher level math and science in college, he said.

Mississippi is among the states adopting a common set of curricula and standardized tests. As those changes are implemented, students will be asked to move away from basic questions and answering to using more critical thinking skills.

With the curriculum changes, lessons will be like a net, and the strategies for one subject would carry over into another, said Gabrielle Mills, a science teacher at Murrah High School.

With the science academy, teachers learned activities that touch on several subjects at one time.

If students can make an emotional connection to a lesson, they will retain the information and be able to transfer it in other situations, said Mautoyia Cooper, an eighth-grade science teacher at Northwest Rankin Middle School.

Cooper said she participated in the science academy because she wanted the latest information from science professions that she can use with her students to capture “not just their attention, but … create an experience so that they don’t forget it.”

Darlene Rutledge, a biology teacher at Smithville High School, said it is also important for students to be self-driven learners. “We want them to be prepared and motivated to move on,” said.


3 thoughts on “Mississippi science teachers receive innovative pointers

  1. Outstanding work Prof. Fadavi! You and your team are making a real difference for the state of Mississippi. Keep up the great work.

  2. This is an excellent article, great program, brilliant idea and strong leadership, Jackson State.

    “…move away from basic questions and answering to using more critical thinking skills.”

    I could not agree more.

    In the collegiate and profession worlds, critical thinking is a cornerstone of success. It expands the realm of the possible.

    It is exciting to see this technique in the classroom learning experience.

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