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South Valley Journal

Science class is a blast at Hidden Valley Middle School

Dec 14, 2020 02:32PM ● By Jet Burnham

A hands-on science activity, common at Hidden Valley Middle School, engages students in personal learning. (A’lura Hutchins/Hidden Valley Middle School)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Science classrooms look a lot different these days, and it’s not just because of COVID-19 safety precautions. Science teachers are adapting their lesson plans to reflect new state science standards of teaching.

“It was content specific before—you perform this exact experiment to get this exact answer to remember this exact piece of information,” said A’lura Hutchins, science teacher at Hidden Valley Middle School. “The new standards are more along the lines of, here's a general idea—now, what can you see? What can you do? What do you think? How do we perform an experiment, and what do you want to figure out? And how do we apply this kind of thinking in order to be able to help us in the future?”

Science with Engineering Education (SEEd) Standards are new this year for the ninth grade biology curriculum. New SEEd standards for all science classes K–12 have all been adopted in the last few years. Because these new standards require more student-driven, hands-on learning, teachers are finding ways to be more creative.

Tyler Blain, eighth grade science teacher at HVMS, has been teaching for 14 years and said it takes a few years to adapt lesson plans when new standards are adopted.

“It took me really rethinking how I teach science,” he said of the newest changes. He said the old way of having students read a chapter and watch an experiment to confirm what they read is not as effective letting them figure it out for themselves.

“It's their own knowledge that they take ownership of—they discovered it; it's their thing and not just some old dead guy from years ago that explained it for them,” Blain said.

Hutchins finds that students will take the responsibility of their learning when provided the opportunity.

“Teachers are there to support the learning and to encourage learning, but we also need to give the students the freedom to engage in their own learning,” Hutchins said.

She recently took her eighth grade science class outside to learn about the properties of matter instead of just reading about it. They wandered the area just outside the school grounds to find natural elements and discuss their uses. They discussed the dirt, rocks and plants they found and their uses. Then students began pulling out their phones to specifically identify and learn more about them. And when the students realized how much trash was in the area, they began to clean it up.

“I didn't plan on it turning into a service project,” Hutchins said. “I didn't plan on students doing all the independent research on the plants and animals—that started to stem from the students’ own decisions. Matter identification was the part that I devised. But I just didn't stop students when they started to think outside the box.”

She said because of that activity, that whole class scored extremely high on their test for that topic. 

Hutchins often encourages students to influence the direction of learning, asking them to bring in science-based questions or current events topics. These become class discussions and sometimes even change the lesson plan for the day.

“You can have all your content built, you can have everything put together,” Hutchins said. “And then you've got to take into account who these students are, what they like and what motivates them. Does the information and content that I have meet the needs of these students? Will it help the students learn? And if the answer is no, I change it.” 

Hutchins threw out a worksheet one morning when she realized it was not going to be an effective way to teach her students.

“Instead of doing the worksheet, we did a giant relay race,” she said. “The kids loved it. They took it so seriously, and they were having such a good time.”

Hutchins said after this activity, her students scored about 90% competency on their next assessment. 

“I think that those hands-on activities are the ones that the students remember,” Hutchins said. She tries to make most assignments a game, activity, experiment or simulation.

Blain said Hutchins, who is only in her second year of teaching, has an amazing ability to engage students.

“She's one of the most energetic teachers I've ever worked with,” he said. “She is just naturally able to motivate her students to participate in her activities. It's actually quite fascinating to watch her just get them so motivated they're willing to do outside activities on their own without much more motivation other than she wants them to.”

Hutchins credits a supportive administration that allows teachers to think outside the box with experiments and activities.

“We got the best admins on the planet who literally let us shoot rockets out the back of the school,” Hutchins said.

Each year, students design soda bottle rockets which they test on a rocket launcher connected to an air compressor, an activity in which students learn about and apply the scientific method.

“You give them the skills for it, and then they're doing their own setup for the experiments, and they're taking the ownership of it,” Blain said. “We do several different rocket launches, testing these different variables out. And by the end of it, they get a rocket that can fly over the fence and get lost.”

The HVMS science department is planning on eighth grade students designing their own experiments and performing and presenting them to parents at the end of the school year.