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This science experiment is working!

Okaloosa County, FL, elementary schools see great gains in science scores, according to DoDEA grant report

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By Tom Farmer, Editor
tfarmer@pitsco.com

Photos by Melissa Karsten, Graphic Artist
mkarsten@pitsco.com

FORT WALTON BEACH, Florida – When a science experiment is well planned, carried out with fidelity, tracked closely, and fully documented, the end results are reliable and revealing.

The implementation of Pitsco Education Mission science labs at five elementary schools within the Okaloosa County (Florida) School District is not a science experiment, but it has all the makings of one – including revealing data.

Funded through a Department of Defense Education Activity grant three years ago, the five Pitsco labs have been maintained and overseen by a pair of full-time science coaches, and a recent report shows the labs’ effects have far surpassed desired results.

A goal of the grant was for 80 percent of the military students (identified by having a parent or a family member working on a nearby military installation such as Eglin Air Force Base) to show at least two-percent growth on the Discovery Education Assessment (DEA) in science from 2012 to 2013.

As it turned out, military students – who make up at least 60 percent of the student population at each of the five schools – increased their DEA scores an average of 14 percent. The results were reported in the “Okaloosa County School District Interact, Investigate, and Transform DoDEA Grant 2013 Annual Report.”

By grade level, test results showed a 20-percent gain for third graders, a 9-percent improvement for fourth graders, and a 14-percent gain for fifth graders.

In the report’s summary, the evaluator stated, “In my opinion, the Okaloosa County School District has highly qualified science coaches, teachers, and administrators that are making the program a model for the nation as it becomes an integral part of the curriculum and instruction provided not only to the military students, but to all students in Okaloosa County.”

PROGRAM MAKES THE DIFFERENCE

District officials, teachers, and students back up the findings of the program evaluator. Science Coach Sandy Palmer has worked with the Missions program since its inception in the district more than two years ago.

“I think it’s the program,” Palmer said of the vastly improved test scores. “It’s set up really well. There’s reading every day, and there’s science content.”

Dennis Samac is principal of Eglin Elementary School, which is located on Eglin Air Force Base and boasts 100 percent military students. He says the Pitsco science lab, which is set up in its own room where classroom teachers bring their students for one week each month, is a big boost to the teachers.

“That takes a little bit of pressure off of the teachers to enjoy science and teach science,” Samac said. “It’s not that the teachers don’t like science. It’s not their forte. It’s number three or four on the list.”

Fourth-Grade Teacher Tracy McClelland of Mary Esther Elementary School says the lab, with all of its student-centered and self-paced activities, is a big help to her. “Honestly, in the classroom, doing these activities, I probably wouldn’t get to them quite as often. But having this monthly visit to the science lab, I’m able to get to them. It benefits me. . . . Things that I honestly wouldn’t be able to have time for, students are getting it in here. I love that opportunity.”

As indicated by their improved test scores, students are making the most of their opportunity with the earth, physical, and life science activities designed for specific age groups. Says Cassidy, a fourth grader at Mary Esther, “I saw all the materials, and I thought it was going to be fun. I thought we were only going to get to do one experiment for the whole week, but we each do an experiment every day.”

EMPOWERING TEACHERS AND STUDENTS

Third-Grade Teacher Renee Laney of Eglin Elementary says she likes the well-rounded design of the Missions science program. Students fill roles – Commander, Information Specialist, Materials Specialist, and Communications Specialist – and sharpen their reading, math, and science skills simultaneously as they cooperatively complete hands-on activities in small teams.

“I’m not standing in front of them and they’re listening to me,” Laney said. “They are actually reading. They are being told what to do within the text. So, one, they’re independently reading. Another, they’re having to actually finish the job on their own, learn a step-by-step process, and hand me a finished product at the end – all without me intervening.”

School Board Member Melissa Thrush periodically visits the science labs and, as a former professional engineer, enjoys seeing students sharpen their 21st-century skills. “Playing roles in Mission labs, it puts people outside their comfort zone,” she said. “Even at the elementary level, students need to have that autonomy to grow their confidence. It helps them grow up to be able to make decisions on their own, really pursue their interests.”

Cosner, a third grader at Eglin, displayed his growing confidence when describing what he likes most about the lab. “There’s things that you don’t know and you get to predict what you think would happen. . . . I think science is fun.”

SCIENCE BECOMING A PRIORITY IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS

It’s common knowledge that math and reading are viewed as the primary subjects in the primary grades, but science – thanks to a national push for STEM education – is gaining momentum. When national science testing is mandated at the elementary level, just as it is now for math and reading, officials predict science will move to the forefront. For now, though, thanks in part to the DoDEA grant, Okaloosa officials are moving ahead on their own to make elementary science a priority.

A strong military presence in the region is one reason science is being emphasized more and more. “You have to understand where we are,” Samac says while standing in the science lab at Eglin Elementary. “This is a research and development facility, Eglin Air Force Base. This is where they made the MOAB – the mother of all bombs – the one they dropped through the bunkers there in Baghdad. It was created here on the base.”

Plus, there’s a desire to prepare elementary students for the STEM opportunities ahead in Okaloosa middle schools, including Pitsco Module labs. District Career and Technical Education Director Patti Bonezzi took time to observe elementary students in the Mission labs even though her realm of influence is in secondary education, and she was excited about the future.

“They’re embracing science at a young age,” Bonezzi said as she watched fourth graders eagerly build and explore at their lab workstations. “So when we’re drilling it in them in middle school, it’s just a continuation. It’s not like I’m starting at middle school, saying, ‘OK, now we’re going to learn science.’ It’s already embedded. . . . They’ve already learned they love it, and they don’t realize you’re ramping up the rigor as they go.”