Charlene Cobbins spends time each summer launching rockets, building volcanoes, and studying rocks at Randolph College. A local middle school teacher, Cobbins welcomes the opportunity to view science instruction from the student’s point of view. As she participates in Randolph’s Science and Math Links: Research-Based Teaching Institute, she imagines how her students’ faces will light up when she shares the same experiments in her own classes.
Randolph’s 13-year-old program has been recognized locally, regionally, and statewide for its ability to improve science education. It has earned grants from the State Council for Higher Education for four years. And just this May, the program was one of only three teacher education programs in the state named a “Program that Works” by the Virginia Math and Science Coalition.
The institute is organized by Peggy Schimmoeller, a Randolph education professor, Peter Sheldon, a physics professor, and Tatiana Gilstrap, an environmental science professor. Their goal is to provide area teachers with the tools they need to teach science in a way that not only interests students but helps them understand and retain the knowledge. The end result, they hope, will be more students entering math and science fields.
“To make the most impact, we needed to start as early as possible to dispel the myths that ‘science is hard,’ or ‘science is done by white males in lab coats,’” Sheldon said.
The institute focuses on inquiry-based teaching techniques with a heavy emphasis on hands-on learning. Participating teachers also spend a week practicing using the new instruction methods during a summer science camp at the local Jubilee Family Development Center.
“We strive to reach as many children as possible in a variety of settings,” Schimmoeller said. “We want students and teachers to feel confident in their ability to do and to understand all areas of scientific investigation.”
While the initiative strives to draw more students to the sciences, it also has positive repercussions in other areas of life, Schimmoeller said. “Scientific understanding allows our children to make informed decisions when they live, work, and vote in the future.”
Randolph’s program has resulted in higher test scores for students and has transformed the way participating teachers, like Cobbins, teach. Since first going through the program about four years ago, Cobbins has had her students conduct experiments such as measuring the porosity of soil from their own yards or probing yeast samples to see how they grow in different substances. These experiences are more effective than lectures, she said. “It gives the students ownership, and they love it.”