When burning Cheez-Its, competing in water relays, and playing with crickets count for graduate school credit, something might seem horribly wrong. But those are actually a very effective ways to interest children in science -- even though it's their teachers who are having all the fun.
The weeklong VISIONS (Venture Into Scientific Inquiry Organized around Nevada Standards) institute provided 60 local teachers lessons in energy and how it is transferred among living organisms. With funding from a federal Math and Science Partnership grant, the summer science camp boosted the science knowledge of elementary school teachers while offering graduate credit and a stipend for taking the workshops.
The thinking behind the program is that with more knowledge comes greater confidence for elementary school teachers -- many of whom only had a couple science classes in their college years. The hope is that the added confidence will translate into more science instruction in classrooms.
This is the third and final year of the program, and 47 of the 60 teachers returned from previous years. Previous camps focused on earth and physical sciences. This workshop kicked off with teachers creating a food chain with each participant representing an animal, plant, the sun or other part of the system; it was a lesson in energy transfer between organisms. By relaying a cup of water with a small hole in it, they also learned how energy is lost in the transfer.
"I gained a better understanding of the sun's role in all this. It's like the big light switch that gets the transfer of energy going," said Gail Sabbs, a fifth grade teacher at Batterman Elementary School in Las Vegas.
The burning Cheez-Its were an analogy for the body's metabolic processes, and the crickets were used to explain respiration and how to detect the creation of carbon dioxide and energy.
The hands-on activities involve a lot of data collection and constant scientific inquiries. It's a taste of the often-frustrating scientific process, which can require methodical patience before an answer is found. After days of data collection and scientific pondering, noticeable frustration can set in among educators who crave final answers.
"The goal is to get them uncomfortable, even a little bit confused, so they can challenge themselves," said UNLV chemistry professor MaryKay Orgill, a program organizer. The end result though is a deeper understanding of the concepts and how to connect them.
For many elementary school teachers, FOSS (Full Option Science System) kits are made available to them at their schools. The kits provide plenty of lessons to help them meet the district's goal of 110 minutes of science instruction per week. But tying concepts and lessons together under a unifying theme can be a challenge.
"The energy concept was never really incorporated (in FOSS lessons)," said Bobby Monsterio, another Batterman fifth grade teacher. "Now, in the classroom you can put together a bunch of units and unite them all (with the energy theme)."