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Students and Teachers Explore Outer Space

This summer, Virginia students and teachers in grades 4-6 explored the possibilities of life on Mars as part of the Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement (VISTA) Summer Camp and Teacher Training Institute. VISTA is a partnership among 69 school districts, six universities and the Virginia Department of Education. The goals of VISTA are to improve science teaching and student learning in Virginia. Their innovative approach is to use problem based learning, student-led inquiry and a hands-on approach to both train teachers and teach students. 

At the Elementary Science Institute, students and teachers developed a “BIG IDEA” that needed to be solved and began the process of discovery. They posed questions, conducted experiments, gathered data and engaged in scientific discourse just like scientists do every day. All this resulted in exceptional lesson plans that will be incorporated into classrooms across Virginia.

See how it works in this Science Matters video:

This year was a magical time for the group as everyone prepared for Curiosity to land on Mars. What better way to engage students in science than to have them think about some of the same problems that NASA scientists tackle every day. Among the many lessons developed this year, students tried their hand at designing a tool that could mine resources on an asteroid. They wanted to experience the challenges of designing a machine to pick up rocks on an alien surface. Students were given limits of time, resources, and visibility, to name a few.

In another lesson plan, students decided to tackle the problem of designing the outside of a space ship. How do you keep something warm or cool it down? These young scientists tracked data and analyzed their results. Teachers were developing and testing out lesson plans focused on Problem-based Learning and incorporating the new Virginia Science objectives that focus on The Nature of Science.

The Nature of Science is an important new objective in Virginia’s Standards of Learning because our children will be taught that:
• The natural world is understandable
• Science is based on evidence, both observational and experimental
• Science is a blend of logic and innovation
• Scientific ideas are durable yet subject to change as new data is collected
• Science is a social endeavor
• Scientists try to remain objective and engage in peer review.
These are pretty exciting times for inspiring young scientists, engineers and future teachers. Stay tuned for more on The Nature of Science in Virginia.

Contact VISTA if you want to know more or want to attend an Elementary Science Institute at either VCU, William and Mary, or George Mason.

The Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement (VISTA) is a five-year, $34 million federal grant designed as a partnership between George Mason University, VCU’s School of Education, the College of William and Mary, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and James Madison University with 69 school districts, and the Virginia Department of Education.

Article by Debbie Mickle, Science Matters Project Manager

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