Action-base learning blends high tech with environmental alertness

Courtney Wells and Omar Budayr work on their Scavenger Hunt list at the pond in Maryville Intermediate Schools Learning Garden.

Courtney Wells and Omar Budayr work on their Scavenger Hunt list at the pond in Maryville Intermediate Schools Learning Garden.

Maryville Intermediate School fifth grader Tait Phillips stepped to the front of the class, faced the board and began to make a straight-line cut in an earthworm. There was no blood, no oozing, but an audible mummer of appreciation when he finished his cut, tapped the board, and the segment he was dissection popped open, revealing the earthworm’s innards.

As his teacher Kyra Kauffman directed the class through the virtual dissection of the earthworm -- in preparation for doing the real thing later -- the blend of technology, action-based learning and environmental awareness that is the mantra at MIS all became clear.

This is a hands-on school, high-tech yet close to the ground.

“Everything we do is action-based learning,” said principal Jan Click. “We promote adventure learning throughout our school, and we are very environmentally aware.”

From the murals on the walls to the names of the teams, nature and the environment are always close at hand at MIS. The school even qualified for one of the highly-coveted Earth Flag awards from Ijams Nature Center.

“We use a mix of our traditional textbooks and the technology that we’ve been lucky enough to receive,” said Click. “Not everybody has the same resources available, and we feel very lucky to have what we do. We blend that technology with the hands-on experience of the inquiry activities in our classes and labs.”

Even in science class, Click said students don’t get to do lab work everyday but teachers make sure they’re getting lab-type experiences each day. For example, in Stacy Haralson’s class, students were pollinating and studying Wisconsin fast plants and recording data observed. “Classrooms become mini-labs for experimentation,” explained Click.

Teacher Whitney Tipton’s students were learning about the scientific method by acting as consumer scientists. Small bags of Cheetos, chips and other products were visible on the classroom tables as each group figured out how to best catalog and check their information with scientific equipment. They were checking the weight of the contents in each bag to see if what was actually in the bag matched the label.

“They come up with a hypothesis, collect data and prove or disprove their hypothesis,” said Tipton. “They are working through the scientific method.”

Tipton said the science classes reflect the philosophy of adventure-based learning that permeates the school’s entire curriculum. “Our science classes as well as lots of other classes do hands-on activities to help students be able to better grasp concepts,” she said. Tipton said the teachers all feel very fortunate to have the labs they have. The school received a Goals 2000 Education Initiative grant that helped them set up the lab 10 years ago when the school opened. “Just being able to have this equipment for students to use enriches their learning experience. They don’t just read about concepts in textbooks,” said Tipton. “They have equipment to use to understand those concepts.”

Fifth-grade science teacher and science department chair Kathleen Hammontree was outside, encouraging students to get their hands dirty. The school has an outdoor Learning Garden with a pond, meadow, compost heap and other areas where students study different aspects of earth science.

They also compost lunch waste several times a week in the compost pile. The compost pile also introduces insect and animal life to the learning environment, said Hammontree, and critters of all kinds visit the garden. “We’ve got mice, birds, and we even had a chipmunk,” she said.

During a scavenger hunt, the students were directed to find different “homes” in the Learning Garden, such as a bird’s nest or a spider’s web. As the students strolled through the garden, notebooks in hand, they were learning they had to look carefully and have a good understanding of what, for example, a “home” was to an animal or insect, and whether the home they were seeing was built by the animal, naturally occurring or provided by the students.

Hammontree said Maryville Intermediate is in a unique situation and able to advance the adventure-based learning, partly because of the lab settings for fifth and sixth graders. Hammontree credited the lab to the support the school has received through the 21 Century Technology Program that the Maryville City Schools Foundation funds and promotes. “We’ve been able to outfit classrooms with Promethean boards, which are a step up from Smartboards. They are even more interactive and offer more flexibility,” said Hammontree. This will become even more important in coming years, she said, as new state standards have challenged all teachers, and the staff is integrating the new standards into the curriculum.

Click praised her teachers in all curriculums for always striving for excellence. “I have the most premier group of teachers that could be assembled under one roof,” she said. “They can make it happen with whatever resources they have.”

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