Under the watchful eye of Oregon State University student Vanessa Robinson, a Lincoln School student carefully combined tape, a plastic spoon and some small sticks to make his unique version of a catapult. Robinson’s eyes widened as she saw his technique.
“That is a creative solution I’ve never seen before,” she said. “Let’s show your dad.”
Around the pair, dozens of other elementary students and parents were crowded around, working on their own experiments. The gymnasium of Lincoln School was abuzz with laughter, shouting and intense discussions during their once-a-term Family Math and Science Night. A similar event is held at Garfield Elementary. The goal is to have children, families and teachers work together as partners to engage in learning science.
The event is facilitated by a group of enthusiastic soon-to-be teachers who are enrolled in Assistant Professor SueAnn Bottoms’ class on scientific methods. These pre-service teachers don’t get a lot of time to spend actually working with students, which is why Bottoms makes sure that in her class, working with elementary students at Garfield and Lincoln Schools is one of the requirements in her class.
The family night events are coordinated between the College of Education faculty, and the OSU-affiliated programs 4-H and SMILE (Science and Math Investigative Learning Experiences). 4-H holds once-a-week afterschool science and math programs at Garfield and Lincoln, and during fall and spring term, Bottoms’ students usually spend about four or five sessions working one-on-one or in small groups with participating children. This allows them to practice their teaching skills, specifically in the area of science education.
Tristyne Brindle is in the Education Double Degree program, which allows her to receive a degree in Human Development and Family Sciences and Education at the same time. She said she’s benefited from her time in Bottoms’ class.
“These kind of experiences are giving us real life practice for when we are teachers,” she said. “I’ve taught swimming lessons before but I haven’t taught in a classroom.”
Brindle said she was excited about her first chance to teach, but after their first exposure to teaching the kids, all the OSU students were a bit unnerved.
“We said ‘Well that was chaotic.’ We were disappointed in ourselves,” she said, because none of them felt fully prepared. “But it did get easier. It’s been overwhelming but definitely good practice, and I needed it.”
Bottoms’ said that the science methods course allows her students to learn about various approaches to teaching and then put them into practice.
“It gets them doing science with children,” she said. “This is about applying those methods immediately in the classroom and then beginning to process what’s happening and understand it.”
Ana Lucia Fonseca is the 4-H instructor working with students at Lincoln and Garfield for their afterschool science and math program. When she’s on her own, she sometimes has up to 15 children in her class. That makes hands-on learning more difficult. So when OSU students are working in smaller groups with her students, the learning environment becomes much more enhanced.
“That makes a huge difference,” she said. “They can do experiments together that way, and it’s much better to have two to one than 15 to one.”
In addition to giving the OSU pre-service teachers some practical experience, Fonseca said her students benefit from getting some special attention from an OSU role model. A college student can inspire a certain amount of hero-worship from a third or fifth grader.
Jay Well with the SMILE program spends a lot of his time helping coordinate math and science events at various schools. At Lincoln and Garfield, he organizes the family math and science nights, and he spends time preparing the OSU pre-service teachers to use informal education methods that they use to help parents and students work together on activities. Then they create instructional plans around science.
“This is a service learning type of experience for OSU students,” Well said. “They are actively learning while providing a worthwhile service to the community.”
Lincoln and Garfield are two Corvallis schools with the highest level of low-income students and with a large Latino population, which is why they were originally targeted for support with math and science programs. But Well hopes to one day see a similar type of arrangement in all Corvallis elementary schools.
“We have to get the money to fund these programs,” he said, “but if we increase the awareness of what we’re doing, hopefully we’ll be able to do more in the future.”
~ Theresa Hogue