Virtually Speaking

This school year, Samantha plans to incorporate more hands-on instruction in her ninth grade science classes. She attends and is inspired by a NASA sponsored presentation on the Virtual Lab yet she struggles to convince her colleagues of its potential for increasing student achievement and motivation.

Samantha prepares for the school year.

Samantha is ready for a new school year

“14,432 minutes left before the little rugrats get here,” Donald Wilkerson declared as he and Samantha Fishburne quickly walked into Willow Park High to escape the August humidity. “What are you doing here when you could be enjoying your last few days of freedom?” Donald joked.

“I should ask you the same thing,” Samantha quipped back.

“I’m here to give Guidance a piece of my mind,” Donald said. “My fourth period biology class has an absurd number of special ed students AND they just added my 27th student!

Donald had served as Samantha’s assigned mentor her first two years and regularly supplied unsolicited, humorous, and at times slightly painful, anecdotes about the trials and tribulations of teaching. Sometimes he appeared to be spinning his wheels in the classroom until retirement, but Samantha recognized the tremendous care he had for his work.

Donald is frustrated with his class numbers

“Incredible,” Samantha said. She wanted to add something about self-fulfilling prophesies and teacher expectation research, but instead gave him her best concerned look and headed toward her classroom.

As a career switcher into the field of education, Samantha had spent much of the last three years working towards her teacher license. Her evenings and weekends were filled with writing papers and reading textbooks about educational theories. During the school year she had no time to read current science education journals, so this past summer she made that type of research a priority and weaved what she read into her goal for the year: to incorporate more hands-on activities, lab work, and technology into her courses. Samantha hoped to create a classroom environment that allowed her ninth graders to experience science, not just read about it.

Alternative Licensure in the State of Florida.

An on-line article that influences Samantha’s thinking.

Samantha sat down at her desk to review her biology course’s curricular changes, plan her daily lessons for the first grading period, and research professional development opportunities. Samantha would be a leader in the Science Department this year, and she embraced the added responsibilities.

She was well aware that her teaching load of five pre-International Baccalaureate science classes was the luck of the draw; not all of her colleagues were blessed with the same motivated students. The school had changed dramatically over the last five years, and many on the staff had voiced their frustration with the recent enrollment of English Language Learners and at-risk students who had flooded the school. Samantha had not felt this burden and continued to assign high level work knowing that her students would always rise to the occasion.

Willow Park High School’s Demographics and Test Scores.

Information on International Baccalaureate Programs.

After about three hours of tweaking lesson plans, writing new assessments, and looking on-line for usable handouts and other resources, Samantha explored the NASA website and clicked on Virtual Lab. “Bingo!” she proclaimed and immediately registered for a presentation later that week on its classroom usability. She dashed off an email to Donald asking if he wanted to attend, and if so, if he wanted to carpool.

Click here to learn about and download Virtual Lab.

Samantha attends a training on Virtual Lab.

Retired space shuttle

“Now this is cool!” Samantha thought as she drove past Kennedy Space Center security to find a parking spot near the Educator’s Resource Center, the building directly next to a graveyard for past U.S. space ships and shuttles. She entered the building and walked down the hallway at a snail’s pace, trying to take in all of the models, pictures, and posters that told the history of the space program. She snatched a few brochures to take back to Willow Park; this would be a great field trip destination. She soon found the NASA Teacher and Student Outreach Classroom, jockeyed for a spot near the computers, and took her seat.

View the Powerpoint from the Virtual Lab Presentation.

After the morning sessions, Samantha’s brain worked overtime fleshing out ways to use Virtual Lab in her first unit. She walked to the nearby food court with a group of teachers. Everyone chatted continuously about the software and offered each other suggestions for its classroom use. “Donald should be here,” Samantha thought. “This could really help raise test scores and deepen kids’ understanding of science.”

At the conclusion of the lunch break, Samantha exchanged email addresses with a few teachers at her table and headed back for the sessions focused on sample selection, teaching strategies and resources.

Back at Willow Park the next day, Samantha navigates the Virtual Lab and explores the COGS website.

“Hey, Don,” Samantha called. Don stopped in the doorway of his classroom as Samantha hurried to catch up with him. “You’ve gotta see the stuff I got,” she continued excitedly. “It’s really amazing.”

Donald grinned at her. “Gotta love the newbies,” he said. “They get so excited!!”

“I’ve been here five years,” Samantha snapped back. “I think that makes me a dinosaur.”

Donald held out a bag of candy. “You know I think you’re great,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me about your fabulous workshop?”

“Nah,” she said. “You don’t deserve it.” She grinned. “But you’ll get to hear all about it at next Friday’s department meeting.”

“Lucky me,” Donald said dryly.

“Janice,” their department chair, “asked me to present.”

“Lucky you,” said Don. “Nothing like a captive audience.”

Samantha said good-bye and headed to her classroom. She wanted to figure out how Virtual Lab could help build her students’ conceptual awareness. It was so hard for them to wrap their minds around many biological processes. Take meiosis and mitosis; students constantly confused the two and forgot steps in the process. Maybe Virtual Lab could help her students understand the details of cell division.

She thought back to the COGS session. It had been so helpful. Samantha clicked on the URL and spent the rest of the afternoon searching lesson plans by topic, downloading sample activities and handouts, and accessing videos, animations, and games.

The COGS (Connecting a Generation to Science) website.

The latest specimens included on Virtual Lab.

Samantha shares what she learned with her colleagues.

Samantha organized her materials in the minutes before the start of the Science Department Meeting. She couldn’t wait to show everyone about this amazing resource.

National Science Standards

“Hey, everyone,” Samantha called. “I need you to gather around these workstations.” She’d downloaded Virtual Lab onto three computers and hoped that after a quick overview of Virtual Lab, her colleagues could work with it themselves so that they could agree on where and how in the curriculum it could be used.

There was a collective groan, but her coworkers moved closer. Samantha smiled. “First, welcome to our new teachers.” She nodded her head at the four fresh faces. “I think you are going to love Virtual Lab,” she began and launched into an enthusiastic description.

Her spirits began to wane as she realized that her audience was far from receptive. She knew the barriers, of course: curricular changes, only three days till the start of school, and an already packed scope and sequence. But, still, it surprised her how few of her colleagues showed any interest in inserting Virtual Lab into their lessons.

Twenty minutes into her hands-on demo, Donald leaned back in his chair, removing his glasses very deliberately. “Sam, this all sounds amazing and it probably will engage the heck out of your pre-IB students.” He glanced around to make sure he had everyone’s attention—and agreement. “But my classes have so many special ed and ESL kids in them, I can’t possibly take that much time to simply hope they discover the information I’m supposed to teach. I need to cover the standards explicitly so they have a chance on the FCATs.”

Information on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests

Samantha deflated. “Give it a try, Don,” she said, looking her former mentor in the eye. “I bet that all students would benefit from hands-on instruction.” She squared her shoulders. “Spoon-feeding the standards into their brains doesn’t help with actual retention. Isn’t that what you taught me?”