Program kick-starts science education - East Valley Tribune: News

Program kick-starts science education

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Posted: Friday, February 29, 2008 1:16 am | Updated: 9:46 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Margaret Floyd lifts a brown shiny cockroach out of its plastic temporary home and lets it crawl around on her hand, causing first-grader Henry Sua-rez to gasp, his eyes widening. "La cucaracha," he says.

Suarez and his classmates spend the next few minutes holding a variety of critters brought from home by Floyd to enhance this life science lesson a bearded dragon, a snake and various insects in their containers.

After some exploration, the students meet Floyd on a patch of carpet at the front of the room to talk about what they've learned.

"Snakes are soft," says one student. "When tortoises are scared, they pee," says another. Floyd listens to all of their answers, and gently steers the conversation to the topic of habitat, the lesson of the day.

But Floyd is not a teacher at Galveston Elementary School in Chandler. She is a volunteer, part of a program that turns Intel employees into educators helping students in science.

The mentoring program is just one way the Chandler Unified School District is supplementing its science programs and trying to generate excitement with students in the subject.

People are taking an interest in math and science at a state level in Arizona, saying that jobs in the fields of engineering and technology are the way to make our economy strong in the future.

The state Board of Education voted last year to double the number of years of math required to earn a high school diploma, from two to four, beginning with the class of 2013. Graduates that year will also need a third year of science.

Subsequently, schools across the East Valley have adopted new curriculums to comply with the changes.

Gov. Janet Napolitano, who pushed for the change, has focused on beefing up math and science education in an effort to better prepare young people to enter a high-tech work force.

In her annual State of the State address earlier this year, she called on the Legislature to provide more money for math and science teachers to keep pace with the new requirements. And she urged revision of state testing standards to match the higher-level math skills students should have.

This spring, for the first time, students in grades 4, 8 and 10 will be tested on Arizona's Instruments to Measure Standards in science.

East Valley schools are looking at ways to enhance their curriculums to place a focus on science, but there are some barriers at the primary and secondary school levels, said Vicki Massey, a science specialist for Mesa Unified Schools. They deal primarily with not having enough highly qualified teachers for the subject and training teachers to integrate the subject so they don't lose time from reading, writing and math.

"We've been emphasizing language and math and some teachers feel like they don't have time for science," she said. To address that, teachers in Mesa are encouraged to find ways to teach reading and writing within the science lesson. The science lesson kits distributed to teachers, for example, often include exposition books in addition to all of the experiment materials.

"We tell them, 'if you're going to write about something, write about science.' There's a shift in thinking there," Massey said.

Gina Vukovich, Galveston principal, said elementary teachers are not always comfortable with science, and that's another barrier they need to address.

"The Intel volunteers, I think, help build the teacher's confidence in teaching science," she said about the mentor program. "Elementary teachers have to teach everything and many of them are not experts in science."

Without help from programs such as Intel's, there wouldn't be as much time for science exploration in the classroom, she said.

Joe Priest, a Galveston science teacher, said having the mentor program has changed the way teachers at the school approach science because there is now a "content expert" as a special guest who can offer information about real world applications of science learning.

"(We're) creating more opportunities for meaningful discussions about science and helping students verbalize the results of their projects and form deeper understandings," he said.

Chris Lemke is an Intel technician who, on his days off, volunteers at the school as a science mentor to third-grade students.

He looks forward to the days when he walks into the lobby and is greeted by students who often run up and hug him and start asking questions about what experiments are in store.

"Instead of just reading about science, they get a feel for it," he said. "They take away from the lesson that science is fun."

This is the second year Intel has partnered with Galveston. Carlos Contreras, an education manager at Intel, said the school was chosen because of its need. About 92 percent of the kids are on free or reduced lunch and 46 percent are English learners. But Contreras said the people involved with the program believe that science is accessible to everyone, regardless of their demographic group.

"Brilliance is everywhere," Contreras said. "You never know what you're going to get."

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