Craig elementary schools leading the way with recognition for science education

Andy Bockelman
For the Craig Press
Sunset kindergartners design and build paintbrushes with unique purposes during science class.
Courtesy photo

The school subject of science is always shifting, and in the past year, certain technical advancements gave the educational world a whole new format, for better or worse.

Fortunately, Moffat County School District science teachers were prepared for the challenge.

MCSD’s three elementary schools recently received acknowledgment for their work with the science education organization Project Lead the Way.

Ridgeview, Sandrock and Sunset Elementary Schools each were named a Distinguished School by the nonprofit, among eight total schools in Colorado and 310 total schools in the country to receive the award.

An accompanying letter for the award lauded educators’ work during the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They should be very proud of their achievements in unlocking their students’ potential and equipping them with the knowledge and skills necessary to thrive in life beyond the classroom no matter what career path they choose,” wrote Dr. Vince Bertram, president and CEO of PLTW.

Ridgeview fifth-graders learn about mixtures and properties of matter during science class.
Courtesy photo

Working together

Project Lead the Way is a nationwide effort to provide quality educational opportunities that utilize STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

On the local level, elementary teachers using the program are Ridgeview’s Rhonda Counts, Sandrock’s Ty Kuberry, and Sunset’s Allison LeWarne

This was the second year Craig schools received the Distinguished School award, LeWarne said.

“We earned the same award last year, but it was right in the midst of schools closing and COVID being crazy,” she said. “Basically, it’s just the idea that we’re doing a good job implementing this program and providing these opportunities for kids in our community.”

The 2020-21 school year marked the third consecutive year MCSD’s elementary school utilized Lead the Way, which LeWarne credited former superintendent David Ulrich with connecting with the district.

“When Ulrich was here, Project Lead the Way invited him to speak at a national conference because they were so impressed with how Moffat County implemented the program,” she said. “We’ve had other schools come to see the program because they’ve heard about what an amazing opportunity it is for them. This spring, a group of Steamboat teachers came down to watch because they were thinking about implementing the program.”

Through the program and next-generation science standards, the trio of teachers work with students at every grade level — kindergarten through fifth-grade — specifically in the subject of science and its adjacent topics.

All three of the science teachers provide the same curriculum in order to stay on track with each other and to accommodate any students who might transfer from one school to another during the school year.

“We are pretty consistent across the district since we all teach K-5 and teach the exact same spoken sequence at the same time,” Counts said. “We’re also able to work together as far as collaborating if we have questions or problems or ways to teach it better.”

Ridgeview second-graders learn about seeds and germination during science class.
Courtesy photo

All hands on deck!

Project Lead the Way provides an emphasis on lessons that lets students produce something tangible in their pursuit of science topics.

“It’s a real hands-on program, so we build stuff in the classroom and use that to enhance the learning that we’re going to do,” LeWarne said. “You can see it and touch it and feel it, and it gives them a deeper understanding.”

Each of the teachers noted they have observed students who have struggled in other subjects thrive in their classrooms and can have an easier time with things like vocabulary and math skills.

“All the kids look forward to coming to it. It’s one of these things where kids go home and talk about it with their parents, the things they’re working on in school,” Kuberry said. “Not every project, but a lot of them, are ones where kids make something they can take home. It’s great seeing the kids being able to work together and get to do projects and think more deeply about what it means.”

Kuberry noted that the robotics program he oversees also was boosted by PLTW.

“When it first came, the district invested a certain amount of money for it to purchase all the materials, so each school got 25 of those VEX kits,” he said. “There are two fifth-grade units that involved those kits to make robots and program them, but we don’t always have time to get to those. Offering it as an after-school thing is a way to let more kids access it.”

The type of projects for each grade are crafted to be accessible for students’ needs.

“Kindergarten is a little bit different because they’re still learning to be in an educational setting and working with other students,” Counts said. “One of my favorite units for them is an engineering unit that they tie into fairy tales, so we talk about the Three Little Pigs and the different types of houses that they build.”

Counts noted a leaf-blower resembling the Big Bad Wolf helps kids understand how to structurally engineer houses that will stay standing amid huffing and puffing.

Counts said another unit she enjoyed teaching is Animal Adaptations for first-graders, imparting the way animals survive and find food in specific environments through locomotion, camouflage and other traits.

“As their capstone project, they have to make a form of a shoe they would use as a traveler in a particular environment,” she said. “They have to research the biome and figure out exactly what they’re going to need as far as an animal adaptation for themselves to be able to survive. If they’re going to the Arctic, for instance, they’d need to make their shoe be waterproof and warm and well-insulated. Any time you talk about animals with kids, that’s a very high interest for them.”

As kids get older, scientific concepts become more complex, such as a unit on energy conversion for fourth-graders.

“We build little projects to learn first about kinetic energy and then how kinetic energy can turn into potential energy,” LeWarne said. “Then with that, we build a car and then start crashing our cars together, and eventually they have to solve the problem keeping an egg safe. Then they learn about safety systems including airbags and restraint systems so that we can design their car to send an egg down a ramp and have it not crack when it collides into a wall.”

Kuberry pointed to a fifth-grade unit on water usage where students have showed their ingenuity.

“At the end they have to make a water filtration system,” he said. “They had to research what kind of materials would work best, but what most of them did was use things like charcoal and sand to make their own. One of them that worked best was some of them made a solar still.”

Earlier lessons can also play into later learning, such as Sun, Moon and Stars for first-graders, which introduces kids to ideas they’ll explore further in Astronomy in fifth-grade.

“If they had not had that foundation laid for them in kindergarten and first-grade, they wouldn’t have that higher level,” Counts said. “I am so excited to see what happens when these kids get to high school with science foundation that they have. I can’t even imagine if every student had the same science education that we are providing for these kids.”

A true test for technology

Spring 2020 put all teachers and students in an unprecedented position as online learning was the only possible option to round out the remaining months of the 2019-20 school year.

“It was a little bit challenging just because everybody was in the same boat and no one knew how the world was going to come out of this,” Counts said. “One of the amazing things that Project Lead the Way did was they kicked it into high gear and they put out all kinds of remote learning.”

Counts noted that while there was a greater emphasis on retaining student literacy and math skills, she and her fellow science educators were still able to have an impact.

“The fact that we were in our second year was huge as opposed to that being our first year. If that had been the case when COVID hit, that would have made it a lot harder,” she said. “Of course the students lost from being out of school for however long we were out, so that was sad. Because it’s such a hands-on program, it obviously looked different doing it online than it did when they were actually in our classroom.”

Upon their return to in-person learning last fall, Counts said science teachers circled back to previous lessons to ensure students understood the concepts before moving forward.

Counts added that she felt fortunate that elementary schools were able to be largely “business as usual” after the summer — apart from masked-up teachers, social distancing, and increased hand-washing.

“Really, truly, we were able to teach our kids this year, and I’m really grateful for that,” she said.

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