Teachers Go To Summer School

JMU Academy Hosts 494 From Across Va.

Posted: June 26, 2014

Left to Right: Cindy Beausang, a teacher in Richmond, Stephen Caja, a teacher in Norfolk, and James Madison University senior Kerlin Doss, 21, a student assistant, take notes as instructor Timothy Couillard of Midlothian writes on the board Wednesday during a Content Teaching Academy class at JMU. (Photos by Nikki Fox / DN-R)
Harrisonburg High School physics teachers Andrew Jackson (left) and Seth Berkeley measure the speed of a battery-powered toy car for an experiment Wednesday at Content Teaching Academy.

HARRISONBURG — Imagine a traditional physics lesson — a teacher standing in front of a screen filled with equations and definitions to memorize before the next test.

Now imagine groups of students encouraged to launch neon projectiles across the room in all directions in the name of science.

This is what modeling physics teaching looks like. 

The lesson’s instructor, a veteran teacher named Mike Turner from North Carolina, calls out a friendly warning and laughs at his own joke.

“Don’t lose your marbles!”

This week, the educators are the students as 128 teachers from around the commonwealth are learning at modeling instruction academies as part of the Content Teaching Academy at James Madison University.

The academy features 494 teachers attending 20 academies across all academic content — from English to computer science and biology — and nine of those will help science teachers build stronger connections with students though a concept called modeling instruction.

Developed in the late 1990s at Arizona State University, modeling instruction is an approach to teaching that encourages constructing and applying conceptual models to understand the physical world, rather than relying solely on books and lectures.

In one physics classroom this week, teachers from as far away as Newport News worked in small groups trying to solve that day’s practicum: determine the launch velocity of a marble fired out of a small spring-loaded mechanism.

The teachers had meter sticks, stopwatches and calculators on their phones, along with painstakingly sketched diagrams in their notebooks to find an answer.

Chris McGrath, a high school physics teacher from Rockbridge County High School, quickly began sketching out a schematic with his group, which included Drew Austin, who teaches at Matoaca High School and John Tyler Community College in Chesterfield, and Kristen Roscoe, a teacher from Spotsylvania.

“With the conservation of momentum, it’s not going to be as far as it could be,” he said while laying out meter sticks to measure the distance the marble travels.

This method of learning looks a lot like what goes on in their classrooms these days.

The teachers are put in groups and must work together to come up with an answer, or even a problem, and present it to peers. Instructors facilitate discussions and offer assistance, but the students are in the driver’s seat when it comes to working out the mechanics of the lesson and achieving the end goal — either an answer to a problem or the demonstration of a concept.

The workshop includes a stay in the JMU dorms, a $400 stipend and five days of instruction, all funded by a $235,819 grant from the Virginia Department of Education to give science teachers a solid foundation in the practice of modeling instruction.

Joe Mahler, who was part of the grant-writing team and recently served as the physics teacher in residence at JMU, led the morning’s practicum for second-year workshop attendees. He’s been using modeling instruction in high schools for 12 years.

“This method of teaching gets students, through experience, to develop scientific models themselves instead of the teaching just telling them what it is,” Mahler said. “It’s a very deliberate approach to teaching.”

 Austin, who came to last year’s modeling instruction academy as part of a professional development requirement, said he sees a difference in his classroom as a result if implementing the modeling method of instruction.

“I see improvement across-the-board in my students,” Austin said. “They get heavier concepts easier, we see better interactions, and better test scores.”

Within 15 minutes, Austin, McGrath and Roscoe have an answer to the marble velocity question posed earlier.

“We measured the distance the marble went from three different heights and averaged them,” he said. “The marble in this model traveled 4.84 meters per second.”

For more information about the Content Teaching Academy visit www.cta.jmu.edu .

Contact Megan Applegate 574-6286 or mapplegate@dnronline.com

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