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New Missions transform science

Pilot program in Elmore City, OK, has students asking for more work

Published December 6, 2016

ELMORE CITY, OK – When students start asking to take home materials and to work ahead in the evenings, it’s time for the teacher to do something. Such as smile and say, “Yes, yes, you may.”

Cathy Johnson came into the 2016-17 school year with 25 years of teaching experience, and she’s always enjoyed the challenge of teaching science to fourth, fifth, and sixth graders at Elmore City-Pernell Elementary (ECPE) School. She had always utilized a science textbook and mixed in relevant videos and some experiments in her classrooms – until this year.

When ECPE was designated a pilot site for the new Pitsco Education STREAM Missions program, Johnson volunteered to head it up because of her passion for science and technology. But after she received formal instruction on how to facilitate the program and learned about the unique framework involving student-led Crews, Briefings, intervals, and extensions, concern about this significant change began to well up inside her.

“I’ve been the sage onstage for so long, it’s kind of hard to give up that control. You’ve taught science for so many years that you know what to do, and then it’s old dog, new tricks,” said Johnson, who opted to begin the new course with whole-class delivery of the Scientific Discovery Mission, a sort of introductory unit that covers many lab fundamentals and hits many national standards. “I think that worked great. And I thought, ‘This is going to work.’ And the first time I graded, I said, ‘They’re learning.’ I thought it would be more difficult, but it’s working.”

It’s working so well that students are asking to take home their Mission Journals and to access the cloud-based content on their home computers and devices the night before doing experiments so they can become more familiar with the content. One of her students, Austin, asked if he could take home his Mission Journal, a comprehensive proof-of-learning tool. “It isn’t necessarily set up for kids to take the Mission Journals home, but they’re very interested, so why would I squash that?” Johnson explained. “And they want to know if they can log in at home. . . . I’ve had kids say they watch the Exploration at home the night before, just to know what to do.”

If only all teachers had such battles on their hands.

Several aspects of the Pitsco Missions program are new or have been revamped from the original version of the elementary curriculum, including a switch from STEM to STREAM with the addition of more reading/vocabulary and art, as well as digital delivery of content.


While the previous version of Missions has been viewed as primarily science curriculum, the new Missions maintain a strong science focus but also emphasize reading, vocabulary, and art. This is a welcome change for elementary teachers whose biggest challenge can be getting students to learn and understand new vocabulary.

“They’re reading it, they’re hearing it, they’re seeing it applied, and they’re using it to talk to each other,” Johnson said of the new terminology students acquire. “I’m used to the teacher-led conversation where I can draw what I need to from the children, and I was afraid this would not draw that, but it does. I walk around and listen. They’re rowdy kids, but rarely does learning take place in a quiet environment, and when they were fingerprinting (at the Crime Lab Mission), they were on the floor. I didn’t make them stay at the table. I was good with that.”

As for art, “It is extremely important; I was so thrilled when they put that in,” Johnson said. “I have posters they made where they had to draw, label, and color. They had to pick a plant cell, and they had to create them, so I gave them a lot of materials, and they had to come to me and point to what each thing is, but each kid created a totally different cell that was totally their opinion of what they wanted to do. And that met so many art standards. I think it met four different art standards for creativity.”


Always the starting point for Pitsco curriculum specialists, national standards were taken into account before any content was developed. For example, the fifth-grade Missions program is designed to meet high percentages of standards in science, math, ELA, art, and even some social studies while incorporating engineering challenges. The Scientific Discovery Mission hits a large percentage of science standards by itself, and introduces the engineering design process which is why Johnson delivered it to the whole class at the start of the year.

“It sets the stage for how you’re going to do everything else. The question, create what you want to do, set it up, test it, remodify, test it, the engineering process, the scientific process, everything. That’s why I wanted to start with that,” Johnson said.

As long as students complete the full complement of 15 Missions during the course of the school year, all fifth-grade science standards required by Oklahoma will be met, Johnson said. “Because I teach math, science, and one unit of social studies, I make sure all those are addressed, but I’m also documenting the art standards that are met in this program.”


Johnson believes students should use computers and devices as much as possible while working in the classroom because that’s how many of them lead their lives, with devices in their hands or at their fingertips. Each of her students has an iPad when working individually, and then each Crew uses one as they page through Mission content via the cloud.

In addition to enabling students to access content anytime – at school or at home – the cloud-based content reaches students of all learning styles through audio, video, graphics, and on-screen text and instructions.

As far as Johnson is concerned, all content should be delivered by a computer or device. “They had to go back and look for the definition of a word, and I had one kid who was already googling it and applying it correctly. Do I say, ‘No, you have to look for it here’? The devices are wonderful; kids are not intimidated by technology, ever. . . . Children want technology in their hand, and you better not deny it because that’s what our future is.”

Even after 25 years of teaching in a traditional elementary classroom setting, Johnson has warmed quickly to the student-centered Mission delivery where she serves primarily as a facilitator.

“It’s too early for me to have data, but I see so much visually of what the kids are doing. I would never be interested in going back,” Johnson said of this new way to teach science. “This is too good of a system. Everybody needs this system. This is how they need to test children: don’t give them a paper and pencil; give them a lab activity and see what they can do.”

“I wanted [Missions] because I know how impactful STEM can be for the entire school, the entire school culture. I’m all about the whole child. It’s not just about reading or writing or math. It’s about every child has some talent somewhere; you just have to find it.”

– Jay Parker, principal, Wallace Elementary School, Wallace, North Carolina

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