Teachers center stage in classroom experiment

Published 10:55 pm Wednesday, May 2, 2012

It would be rude to call them lab rats, but Suffolk teachers will be playing the traditional role of Bunsen burners and test tubes in a different kind of classroom experiment later this year.

Suffolk and Portsmouth school districts are allocating 20 teachers each for the Old Dominion University probe into the effectiveness of new teaching methods in the areas of science, math, engineering and technology.

According to Dr. Alok Verma, its Lean Manufacturing and Enterprise Institute director, ODU wants to know whether production and design projects with a practical bent can help secondary math and engineering students achieve Standards of Learning objectives.

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The experiment involves 10 teachers from each district’s offering — half of the total 40 — participating in a week-and-a-half summer workshop with university professors and graduate students.

During the first three days of the workshop, those 20 teachers will be shown an ODU-developed lesson teaching students production and design. “We are focusing on ship design,” Verma said.

For the remainder of the workshop, teachers will develop their own lessons based on — in university jargon — “exemplars.”

“Graduate students will help develop the curriculum and exemplars with the teachers,” Verma explained.

The other 20 teachers will take more of a backseat role as the experiment’s controls: data from their classrooms will be a baseline to quantify how well the new teaching methods work.

Academics from Virginia Commonwealth University will externally validate the findings from Suffolk and Portsmouth, Verma said.

“Each of these projects require external validators, and they look at data collected through surveys and interviews done pre- and post-assessment to see what has improved,” he said.

Deputy Superintendent Jacqueline Chavis said Suffolk Public Schools hopes to finalize its selection of participating educators this month.

Reportedly involving a total of 174 teachers, the project will be repeated by other school districts and universities across Virginia.

The Department of Education announced statewide funding of $500,000 toward the project, dubbed the Virginia STEM Collaborative Nurturing Network to Enhance Content-focused Teaching.

“Now we have been awarded the grant, we will first be getting information out to teachers, and they will indicate their interest to us,” Chavis said.

The project “aligns with our comprehensive plan to increase our STEM (capabilities) within the district,” she said, using an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

“It’s always exciting to partner with other districts and local colleges,” she added.

Verma said one “master teacher” from each district will coordinate delivery of the new lessons in Suffolk and Portsmouth classrooms.

“The program will be providing continuous support to (the) teachers until the middle of next year,” he said.