Chris Clawson, Mayo sixth grade science teacher, believes in the value of demonstrations to help students understand science. Here she uses one student as the sun at the center of the solar system and a rope to explain how the sun’s gravity works to keep planets in orbit. (Gary Henry/The Prairie Press)

Mayo in top 4 percent

Science teachers' extra work pays off as Mayo students perform well

Science teachers at Mayo are celebrating.

Test results are back on a new middle school science test administered last year to Illinois students and Mayo scored among the top 4 percent of all schools in the state.

Since it was a new test, there was no way to teach to the test trying to achieve a high score.

“We had no idea what it would look like,” said Steve Kirchofer who retired from teaching at the end of the 2016-2017 school year after the test was given.

The approach Kirchofer took along with fellow science teachers Mike Brouwer and Chris Clawson utilitzed principles of the Common Core curriculum, and they believe that contributed to the scores.

“For Common Core, it is critical to have memory and be able to apply what you have learned,” said Brouwer.

He and Clawson focused on bringing outside reading material into the classroom as part of regular lessons so students had to read, pull ideas from the material and explain the significance of those ideas. Both said the extra reading and writing exercises helped the students because the new test concentrates on reading and analyzing the text rather than the multiple choice questions featured on the old Illinois Scholastic Aptitude Test (ISAT).

Another Common Core value is the use of open-ended projects for applying lessons.

“We give them the tools and information, and we step back,” said Clawson, adding it is up to the students to build on their knowledge and use analytical skills to arrive at solutions to the problem posed by a project.

Brouwer said, “The majority of it is student-led, and that is sometimes hard for older teachers.”

Kirchofer agreed. He never went full in with the approach of dividing students into groups to figure out problems, but the others noted Kirchofer always incorporated demonstrations to illustrate scientific points.

“And I always questioned them,” Kirchofer said.

Part of what the teachers do is avoid giving the students answers. Instead, they pose questions to help students focus attention to the problem at hand and finding a way to solve it.

“We don’t give answers. We just keep asking questions,” said Clawson. “That’s tough for these kids. They live in an instantaneous world, and they don’t like to wait.”

She regards learning problem solving skills as a tremendous asset because problem solving is something adults must do every day of their lives. She described it as the real world.

What the teachers don’t see is an innate fascination and curiosity about science in most students.

“Kids are fascinated by technology, but not always aware of other sciences,” said Brouwer.

He uses that mindset for his teaching. Students are currently working on a unit about ecosystems, and Brouwer lets them use computers to create cartoons or movies about biospheres.

“That keeps them interested, but it has to be factually based,” he said.

Clawson said some students can develop a real appreciation for science if they find something that interests them.

“But they don’t go out and seek it on their own,” she said.

One of her tactics is the element of surprise. In a life science segment, they grow bacteria cultures using samples retrieved from various objects. One question posed before the experiment usually has the students speculating the grossest petri dish will come from the toilet sample. The biggest growth always occurs from a sample retrieved from a cell phone.

“The looks on their faces are great,” said Clawson.

The Prairie Press

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