News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 12, 2013

Applied science: Educators learning how to teach complex science, math concepts to students

Sue Loughlin
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Some Vigo County School Corp. middle school educators are learning about nanotechnology, solar energy and gravity-powered vehicles this summer to help them better teach complex math and science concepts to their students.

And they’re learning from the experts: instructors from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

Not only are the teachers learning how to better teach science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects, they also have an opportunity to apply what they’ve learned.

The STEM workshop has been coordinated with the elementary summer school programs, Math Magic-Writing Wonders, and the middle school teachers are assisting with some of the lessons — and then presenting their own.

“It’s exciting in that teachers are able to apply all this new knowledge,” said Karen Goeller, VCSC deputy superintendent.

The 50 science, math and technology teachers from Sarah Scott, West Vigo, Woodrow Wilson and Otter Creek middle schools are participating in a four-week summer workshop made possible through a $450,000 Indiana Department of Education grant.

Rose-Hulman professors and staff associated with the PRISM program are providing sessions; PRISM provides resources to assist teachers in learning more about STEM educational standards.

Last week, teachers explored nanotechnology and futuristic applications. Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter on an atomic or molecular scale.

This week, the teachers will build small solar houses out of everyday items and then test the homes. They will present a lesson to the Math Magic-Writing Wonders students on Thursday.

Next week, teachers will design and construct vehicles powered by gravity.

The teachers spent part of the day learning from Rose-Hulman instructors and part of the day working with elementary students.

“It’s great,” said Jeremy Johnson, a Woodrow Wilson science teacher. “It’s really giving the teachers a more in-depth understanding of the processes, and we’ll have a better understanding of how to teach it.”

Kelly Stout, a science teacher at Sarah Scott, said that through the summer workshop, “we are learning not only specific lesson plans, but then we are able to apply them by working with students in Math Magic-Writing Wonders.”

The young students “are very interested” in the topics being presented, she said.

Scott Dillion, a technology teacher at West Vigo Middle School, said that in sixth grade, students do construction units. He will be able to incorporate what he’s learning this week about solar structures to tell kids about how the power of the sun can be used to heat and cool buildings.

Meanwhile, in Math Magic-Writing Wonders, about 300 students in grades three through five are doing separate but related activities in all three areas — nanoscale, passive solar energy and gravity cars.  

On Tuesday, elementary students used handmade solar ovens to cook s’mores outside, under the bright sun. The ovens were made of small pizza boxes; aluminum foil to reflect the sun; plastic wrap to hold in the heat; black paper to absorb the heat; and straws to hold the solar panel open.

The elementary students wrote down their observations after three, six, nine and 12 minutes. Dallas Myers, who will be a fourth-grader at Dixie Bee Elementary, has learned that if people used more solar power, they wouldn’t have to use as much coal and oil. And that’s better for the environment.

Stout, Dillion and Johnson assisted the Math Magic-Writing Wonders teachers, as students set up their solar ovens and made their observations.

In August, the middle school teachers will go to Rose-Hulman for a week to fine tune their new lesson plans.

Erin Phelps, visiting assistant professor of chemical engineering at Rose-Hulman, is working with middle school teachers — her first opportunity to do so.

“I’m having a great time,” she said. The middle school teachers are receptive and open with her about making sure they develop lesson plans aimed at middle school students.

The end goal is “to get students excited” about STEM subjects, said John Newport, VCSC math and science curriculum coordinator.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or