University of Vermont

New Program Creates Climate for Science Learning

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Dana Dezotell must know what she's doing.

The energetic science teacher has instructed students in her ninth grade Earth Science class at Missisquoi Valley Union High School in Swanton to do whatever it takes to create clouds of condensation in the large soft drink bottles she's distributed, and students are avidly pouring water in the bottles, squeezing and unsqueezing them, and banging them against their desks to comply.

Now she's handing out books of matches.

Dezotell isn't looking for a visit from the local police; she's in the thick of an inquiry-based lesson called Cloud in a Bottle, designed to help students learn for themselves the science behind cloud formation.

One prerequisite, it turns out, are dust specs floating in the atmosphere, which function as nuclei for condensation and together form a foggy vapor. In the classroom experiment, smoke particles from the matches students drop in their soggy bottles serve as cloud nuclei and -- after the heating-cooling cycle squeezing and unsqueezing the bottles promotes -- they prompt a series of robust cloud displays in students' bottles.

Cloud in a Bottle is clearly a lot of fun. It also turns out to be a pretty good way to learn.

"I like it when teachers don't tell you what to do, and you figure it out, because it gives you more challenges," says Katelyn Meunier, a student in Dezotell's class. "And I like to solve problems myself."

SWAC-style learning

That insight is at the heart of the program that brought Cloud in a Bottle to Dezotell's classroom: an inventive teacher development initiative funded by the National Science Foundation and the Vermont Department of Education called Satellites, Weather and Climate, or SWAC. UVM geography professor Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux and education professor Regina Toolin are the principal investigators on both grants.

SWAC's objective is create a cadre of middle and secondary school teachers in the state able to deeply engage students in science -- using a curriculum focused on weather and climate. The ultimate goal is to create students who've mastered 21st century skills like critical thinking and collaboration, and who may consider entering a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) career.

Eleven teachers in Franklin, Chittenden and Addison counties, including Dezotell, are currently enrolled in the program and incorporate it into classes ranging from physics to environmental science. Dupigny-Giroux and Toolin hope to obtain the funding to take SWAC statewide in the future.

SWAC has three major components: an intensive five-day summer course that immerses teachers in the study of climate science; monthly meetings during the school year at UVM that bring teachers together with a team of experts, including Toolin and Dupigny-Giroux, for instruction and the chance to share experiences; and a rich suite of teaching modules developed by the expert team, ranging from Clouds and Cloud Forecasting to Land Surface Interpretation and Permafrost, that teachers use in their classroom teaching.

The program also emphasizes the collection of real-time weather data, which can be incorporated into classroom instruction. Several SWAC schools have small weather stations on their roofs that pipeline data to class computers.

Stand and don't deliver

SWAC puts strong emphasis on bolstering teachers' content knowledge, a foundational piece in their becoming more confident and effective teachers, and the coursework can be rigorous.

But it's also about pedagogy, and improving the way science is taught in Vermont.

According to Gail Hall, science coordinator at the Vermont Department of Education, less than ideal science teaching is having an impact on students in the state.

"One of things we're learning is that kids who learn in a lecture style, what we call stand and deliver, do not retain that learning," she says. In addition, "communication and the written word are often weak. Students can't marshal their thoughts and aren't using evidence well."

SWAC is tailor-made to combat those problems, says Dupigny-Giroux.

"The fundamental pedagogy of SWAC is to make things so understandable and memorable that you don't forget them," she says.

The inquiry-based learning approach also builds critical thinking skills.

"Students get better and better at figuring things out and communicating what they've figured out," says Dupigny-Giroux.

SWAC also encourages teachers to employ a pedagogy called project-based learning, a specialty of Toolin's, where students use technology and inquiry to engage with issues and questions that are relevant to their lives.

Out of the zone

One of the challenges facing SWAC is persuading teachers to experiment with more effective new teaching styles that take them out of their comfort zone.

To do that Dupigny-Giroux, Toolin and their colleagues make a point of modeling the pedagogy they're preaching.

Dupigny-Giroux routinely takes the teachers outside the classroom during the summer session to point at clouds rushing by as a way of demonstrating hard-to-grasp concepts like wind shear.

And she's also the motive force behind a hands-on SWAC program that's hugely popular with teachers: the annual launch of a National Weather Service-style weather balloon carrying instruments that measure atmospheric pressure, temperature and humidity as the balloon ascends into the upper atmosphere. Teachers record and graph the data.

Dezotell participated last summer. "It was wonderful," she says. "To be able to understand and collect data; from the ground we were able to measure the pressure and the temperature. It was amazing."

SWAC also uses the gee-whiz power of technology to engage teachers and motivate them to try new tricks.

At one of the monthly meetings, the technologist in the expert group, an undergraduate geography major named Dan Koopman, put together a presentation on geo-viewers that featured a Google Earth map of Burlington complete with layers of historical data at a number of key locations, marked with Google's trademark push-pins.

"What came out of that was that everybody's wheels started spinning," Dupigny-Giroux says. "They're saying, 'Hey Dan, can you come to my class and show me how to do this and that?' That's a fun way to move out of your comfort zone."

Moving confidently around the classroom, doing some bottle shaking and squeezing, offering insight where needed, Dezotell is far outside of what would be many teachers' comfort zone. But she's thriving.

"I give the students the right to enjoy their age," she says. "It should be fun. One of the words I hear all the time is thank you. Thank you for teaching us this; thank you for teaching us this way. SWAC inspire me so much. It stimulates me to do my best."