- Associated Press - Sunday, September 21, 2014

GAINESVILLE, Ga. (AP) - In an increasingly technology-centered society, science education is growing in importance. Even on its own, it remains a critical part of helping students develop thinking and problem-solving skills.

With that in mind, the University of North Georgia will help local elementary school teachers with their own science skills.

Through a state Department of Education grant, the university will partner with area schools to increase elementary students’ science achievement by providing professional development sessions to teachers.

The grant, awarded through the federal Mathematics and Science Partnership program, funds $138,483 for the project this year and could fund $132,196 next year, pending performance and availability of funds.

Georgia was allocated $6,386,018 in Math and Science Partnership funds and received 28 project requests totaling more than $7 million.

The sessions will be designed to strengthen both knowledge and teaching skills in science.

“The main point is to improve (teachers’) content knowledge in science and the second point is to give them a way of teaching it,” said April Nelms, the project director and an assistant professor of science education at the school.

Along with Professor Mark Spraker, a nuclear physicist, and Sanghee Choi, an assistant professor of science education, Nelms wrote the grant and will be involved in the learning sessions.

“The bigger picture is that we’re going to better prepare students to go into any career path,” said Nelms. “Anything from a mechanic to an engineer, we want to give them this same field of thought that science provides.”

Nelms said science education aids with critical thinking, innovation, and problem solving.

“Really, it about being prepared to approach problems on issues that need to be solved,” she said.

The project will involve the university, Hall and Lumpkin county schools, the Dahlonega-Lumpkin Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce.

The 20 sessions will include 30 teachers from Hall and Lumpkin, and will take place over two years. Nelms said there won’t be clear how many teachers from each county will participate until registration begins.

Nelms said science education increases along with grade levels, and she hopes the sessions will help put more instruction into classrooms at the elementary level.

“In working with each grade (level), you see less science in elementary classrooms,” she said. “They have less time to teach it, or maybe they feel less confident (teaching it).”

Nelms hopes to improve that confidence by improving teachers’ knowledge of science.

“There are concepts in life science and chemistry and earth science, there are a lot of complicated things,” said Nelms. “They have to have knowledge in all those categories.”

She hopes teachers will gain enough content knowledge from the sessions to be able to engage more deeply with students and readily answer their questions, tasks that can be challenging when combined with the many other duties elementary school teachers have to perform.

“They have so much that they have to incorporate on a daily basis,” she said.

The 20 sessions, which will provide 180 hours of professional learning, will be split over two years, with five sessions during the school year and five over a week in the summer of each year. The first set of sessions are expected to begin in late fall.

In addition to strengthening content knowledge and providing instructional support, the sessions may include visits from industry leaders who can demonstrate why science learning is relevant to students and important to their future careers.

“I think the most important thing about the grant is that it provides a learning opportunity for elementary teachers that they wouldn’t normally be getting,” said Nelms. “It’s the experience with people who are passionate about doing science at any level.”

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