Making gains with real-world science connections

For example, in a classroom lesson on solar and lunar eclipses, students were having a hard time understanding that eclipses occur when one celestial object casts a shadow on another. Hands-on demonstrations with manipulatives, like globes and flashlights, were not helping to increase their understanding. In an online lesson, however, students could manipulate a scale model of the Earth-moon-sun system to create solar and lunar eclipses, and also change the distance and angles between the objects and observe the results. Once they could manipulate the model, they got it instantly.

We teachers also like the program’s standards alignment and search capabilities, which allow us to choose lessons and activities to address our curriculum requirements and our students’ needs. With virtual labs and manipulatives, we can also teach important concepts without having to invest in expensive lab equipment or materials that could be dangerous in a traditional lab.

For example, in an online unit on the melting and boiling points of different materials, students explored the three states of matter, and examined melting and boiling points as physical properties of substances. After studying solids, liquids and gases and how to identify the changes between these states, students conducted experiments and graphed heating curves of various substances, such as sulfur. In a traditional lab setting, we would not have been able to conduct this experiment because sulfur, when boiled, becomes toxic.

We have also found that integrating technology into science has helped us to become facilitators of student learning. We now spend more time as the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage.” In addition, we can use data from online assessments to re-teach or adjust our instruction if we see students struggling with a concept.

By using real-world connections to develop students’ conceptual understanding, rather than learning by rote, we have motivated students to take an active role in their learning. As a result, our students are better able to master the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for Science.

Now, when students get to our state test, they have an image in their minds — something they can remember and relate the questions to. And that is reflected in our test scores. Over the last few years, our science scores have gone up an average of six or seven points a year. In 2011, our science scores were the highest we’ve ever achieved. Eighty-one percent of students met the standard in science, up from 61 percent in 2008. As a result of our success, we have decided to increase our use of this approach in math as well.

By helping students make real-life connections between themselves and the science concepts in their environments, we are taking conceptual development to a higher level and helping students develop knowledge and skills that will last a lifetime.

Noe Granado and Seth R. Hawkins are teachers at Besteiro Middle School in Brownsville, Texas.

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