(November 26, 2013 by Jessica Bock, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, photo by J.B. Forbes)
For a lesson about the components of soil, fifth-grade science teacher Sara Berghoff could have read definitions out of a textbook.
Instead, she had her students dig in.
Her class at Jamestown Elementary combed through plastic containers of soil. In groups of four, students examined leaves, rocks, acorns and pieces of paper.
“Give me an example of things that might be alive — or were once alive — in the soil,” Berghoff asked the class. Nearly all of the hands shot into the air. There was a brief, but lively debate about whether paper would count, considering it came from trees. With more questions, they went back to investigating.
The enthusiasm for science is up, and so are test scores across Hazelwood schools, where teachers such as Berghoff are crediting a district partnership with Washington University.
Five years ago, the university began giving K-8 science teachers unprecedented access to its experts in teaching and learning, as well as other resources. Vicki May, executive director of the university’s Institute for School Partnership, calls it “embedded professional development.”
Teachers involved get 15 graduate-level credits from Washington University at no charge with classes offered at district schools and developed by Washington University to meet their specific needs.
The partnership is paying off.
Of districts in the state of similar size, Hazelwood has some of the most improved in science scores in the last few years, according to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. At Jamestown Elementary, the percentage of students passing the state’s science test jumped from 15 percent in 2009 to 65 percent this year.
Teachers say the support from Washington University has changed the way they approach their science classes, creating lessons that are more hands-on and challenging. And they’ve been able to build collaboration between science teachers at schools throughout the district.
“A lot of people are scared to teach science because they’re afraid they’re not going to know the answer when kids ask questions,” Berghoff said. “I’ve learned to let the students discover.”