By KRISTEN COYNE
Students and teachers: Sharpen your pencils and plan your first-day outfit: The 2015-2016 school year is about to begin. As happens every year, you can expect some of the "same old" — loud hallways, first-day jitters, morning announcements — as well as some new: fresh faces, first-year teachers and unfamiliar classrooms.
It's no different at the MagLab, where our STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education efforts kick into back-to-school mode. We'll still be doing our popular classroom outreach program (see teacher testimonials below), as well as a mentorship program for middle schoolers, internships and teacher workshops. We even offer lots of online content through our Magnet Academy. And as always, all these MagLab programs and resources are free. But a few things will be new.
This year the lab's educational outreach arm will be targeting schools that have a high percentage of low-income students, known as Title I schools. "These schools really need extra attention paid to science education, and we have the resources to make a difference," said MagLab Classroom Outreach Coordinator Carlos Villa. "We will be building partnerships with them, conducting teacher workshops and helping in any other ways that we can."
Classroom outreach is also expanding geographically this year. Villa has been doing outreach for a dozen years around the MagLab's Tallahassee, Florida, headquarters, reaching an average 8,000 students a year. Last year outreach efforts expanded to the lab's Los Alamos, New Mexico, location, which loans a "magnet exploration" kit to area teachers. And starting this year, staff from the lab's Gainesville, Florida, location will travel to area classrooms to do hands-on activities about magnets or the nature of science with kids.
Back in Tallahassee, area teachers from kindergarten through high school can choose from a menu of a dozen outreach activities ranging from "Electricity, Static & Currents" to "What Is a Scientist." Villa will travel to a teacher's classroom to present the program, rolling a container of supplies behind him, or teachers can bring their students to the MagLab for outreach on site coupled with a lab tour.
"MagLab educators are very patient with my students, always. They also encourage questioning and take their time explaining."
— Candace Gautney
Villa has polished his craft over the years, adding new tricks to his teaching toolbox. He's learned to handle the unexpected, like the student who once "ate" his magnet (turned out he didn't actually swallow – no emergency room trip necessary).
But one thing, he says, never changes: "They see a specialist coming in with a big box of science goodies and they get excited," he said.
Need proof? Just walk into one of his lessons and you'll hear a steady stream of "Wow!" and "Cool!"
"If I don't get an ‘Aha!' or an, ‘Aaaahh!'" – picture Villa taking in a sudden gulp of air here – "or just get their eyebrows to go up in any way shape or form, then I'm not doing it right, and I have to rethink what I'm doing for the next group.
"Because that's paramount to what I'm doing," Villa continued. "That is absolutely paramount."
Tallahassee teachers talk about what the MagLab's educational outreach program means to them and their students.
Beth Petty, 6th grade teacher, Montford Middle School
"Even though I am a veteran teacher and the students tell me that they love my class, they really enjoy having Carlos visit the class. He offers a different approach in presenting information. The students are fascinated by him and engaged from the beginning to the end.
"Students want to be engaged instead of just talked to. They can experience and discover for themselves while they learn instead of participate by being bystanders.
"I've adapted so many of my teaching techniques over the years from Carlos. The way that he speaks to the students immediately gets their attention. It isn't unusual for Carlos to pull a chair up to the kids and just engage the group while doing a demonstration, giving instructions or beginning a discussion. He meets them at their eye level and you can hear a pin drop as they focus on him."
Candace Gautney, former Ruediger Elementary School teacher and currently testing administrator at Godby High School
"Having someone come from the MagLab is 'cool,' is just different than the regular curriculum, and is almost like a field trip, which in Title I schools is hard to organize and pay for.
"Many teachers are not comfortable with science, so having someone else come in and do it for them is great, because they can see that the kids are capable of completing this type of activity. For educators like me, who are very comfortable with science, it is a way to get materials into the hands of our kids that we may not readily have access to.
"It gives kids a safe place to try things out and to see first hand that if something doesn't work out the first time, you just keep trying"
— Susan Goracke
"MagLab educators are very patient with my students, always. They also encourage questioning and take their time explaining. The students feel very comfortable with them, and you can tell that they really know what they are talking about and love what they do."
Susan Goracke, 5th grade math and science teacher, Canopy Oaks Elementary
"Having a new face in front of my students gets their attention, captivates them. Carlos always has cool, new gadgets/tricks up his sleeve that literally keep the kids on the edge of their seats! My students benefit from having an outside educator visit our class, and I look at it as a professional development opportunity. When Carlos explains background concepts to the class, I take notes on the content, on his strategies and delivery. I also have the benefit of sitting "outside" the instructional dialog and observe my students. I notice how Carlos uses wait time to force the kids to take the time to have a complete thought, instead of just blurting out the first thing that pops into thought. It's nice to see how students respond to different types of questions and to see which questioning techniques pull some students out of their shells.
"So many students are intimidated by science and feel like they aren't "smart enough" to "do science." The hands-on aspect of classroom outreach makes the experience more engaging, more exciting, which adds to the "likability" of science.
"But it does even more than that. It gives kids a safe place to try things out and to see first hand that if something doesn't work out the first time, you just keep trying. For example, Carlos gave students a plastic tube containing the makings of a simple electric circuit. By students having the materials at their seats, they could "fail" without a huge audience and keep trying. Once the light bulb comes on literally, the light bulb comes on figuratively, as well. Faces light up with the satisfaction of tackling a challenge and succeeding."