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Teachers get schooled at GBO

Fifth through ninth grade science teachers in West Virginia spent two weeks at the Green Bank Observatory at a professional development retreat focusing on meteorology, astronomy and geology. Pocahontas County High School retired science teacher Mary Sue Burns led the geology class and, as shown above, led interactive projects to engage students in learning. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

While students all across West Virginia were enjoying their summer vacation, fifth through ninth grade science teachers gathered at the Green Bank Observatory for a two-week professional development retreat provided by an Earth and Space Science Passport grant.

Dr. Deb Hemler, geoscience coordinator at Fairmont State University, received the grant and organized the classes for West Virginia’s science teachers.

“I’m also the person responsible for teaching science teachers,” Hemler said. “So, any secondary science teachers come through my program, and I’m also responsible for teaching the elementary sciences. There’s a couple of my former students in here actually, and three of my current students.”

During the two-weeks, science teachers are divided into groups and attend meteorology, astronomy and geology mini-courses which provide them with new and fun ways to teach their students while adhering to the Next Generation science standards.

“They do three days in one discipline, then they do project presentations in the morning, and we do something slightly different with them that day to kind of give them an intermission,” Hemler said. “One day we brought in someone from the Smart Center in Wheeling, and he did demonstrations and things they could do in the classrooms. Another day, we took them on a geology field trip to the quarry.”

Green Bank Observatory education officer Sue Ann Heatherly shows her science teacher “students” a diagram of stars that plots them according to their brightness and size. S. Stewart photo

The grant provided for three years of the professional development, which, along with preparing teachers for the classroom, also provides them credit toward a master’s degree.

“The good news is, if you participate in this grant, you get ten graduate credits for free, so the grant pays the tuition for the grad credits, so they’re almost a third of the way through a master’s degree,” Hemler said. “They commit to this for two years – not just these two weeks – so we do content development during these two weeks and we model pedagogy and things we would like them to do.

“Then, during the course of the school year, we have teleconferences once a month and they have an online class that they are responsible for doing,” she continued. “They watch some instructional videos on earth and space content, they read a book and then we chat. They also present at the science teachers conference. Then, in the spring, they have to present an action research project they did with their students.”

The two-year program culminates with the teachers returning to FSU in the second year for a week to work with the Solar Army.

“It’s a nation-wide program that has a strong component in West Virginia at Fairmont State and NASA, IV and V [Independent Verification and Validation Facility] Educator Resource Center comes in and does engineering and design, so they do some science research using solar energy, and they do some engineering design with NASA IV and V,” Hemler said.

Along with using the GBO facility for the program, the classes were led by local educators who specialize in the earth and space fields. Retired science teacher Mary Sue Burns led the geology class, while GBO education officer Sue Ann Heatherly led the astronomy class.

“They’re working not only on the content, but this is the Next Generation of science standards, so they’re working with the Next Generation of science standards and figuring out how to take what we’ve done with them and apply it toward the standards they’re responsible for teaching,” Hemler said.

This is the last year of the three-year grant period and, Hemler said, unfortunately, the grant no longer exists. Despite the setback, Hemler hopes to find other funding sources to continue the program.

“I like the model and the teachers that have been participating in this grant have all said, ‘oh my gosh, you have to continue,’” Hemler said. “The first year teachers were supposed to be done last year, and they’re craving more, so I took them back to the science teacher conference last year, even though they didn’t have to and they presented a poster session. We’re bringing them back on a voluntary basis to Fairmont State’s campus and they’re going to get a grant writing workshop. So, they’re going to learn to write their own grants.

“I’m just sad to see it come to an end,” she continued. “I’m hoping to find some way – I’m trying to see what we could do in some form or another to try to replicate this – find a funding source, or find a way we can do it cheaper.”

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