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Middle school shows off science skills for NSF head

Middle school shows off science skills for NSF head

The director of the National Science Foundation came to see how West Jessamine Middle School implements a program to improve math and science achievement.

And Arden Bement Jr. liked what he saw during a visit yesterday.

"The beneficiaries are going to be the students themselves, who will be our future work force," Bement said. "That will translate into economic development, better quality of life and a much better future for some of these young people."

Jessamine County participates in the Appalachian Math-Science Partnership, which is funded by a $24 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The program is administered by the University of Kentucky but is spread among other universities and 56 school districts in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

The program began in 2003 and provides in-service training and the resources to help teachers engage students in math and science.

For example, West Jessamine Middle teacher Darren Norman had his students learn about Newton's first law -- an object in motion tends to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction -- by having them run Hot Wheels die-cast metal cars down a ramp. Little clay figures of various sizes on the cars acted as "drivers and passengers" thrown from the cars if they weren't properly "buckled in" by rubber bands.

From their lab observations, the students had to answer questions such as, "Does the mass of a person affect the inertia of a person?" or "Is the car's acceleration down the ramp a constant?"

That kind of hands-on learning has helped the school improve its math and science scores.

"This is a wave that's going through the nation right now to make learning much more enjoyable, much more informative, and to give the students a chance to teach themselves by doing it," Bement said. "You can do a lot with very simple experiments."

Bement was impressed that 53 percent of respondents answering a Jessamine questionnaire before they enter high school expressed interest in a science-related career.

"That's really encouraging," Bement said. "In many other parts of the country, there seems to be a declining interest in careers in science or engineering."

Science teacher Darren Norman said the partnership has given him and other teachers "the ideas for teaching the kids effectively."

If the Jessamine district is more successful in implementing the program, Norman said, that's because "we're more driven to make sure that what we're spending is effective.

"You're not just looking up something to say 'Wow, that would be nice to have. That would be a great toy.' We don't do that. We look at it and say, 'This is something that will help our kids.'"

Felicia Roher, instructional supervisor for the Jessamine district, said the partnership has opened doors between elementary, middle and high school teachers and experts in various fields of higher education.

"There's a constant need in establishing those relationships," said John Yopp, associate provost for educational partnerships and the AMSP projects director. "We've had teachers who have never talked to a faculty member at a university. After this grant, they have people they feel comfortable with and going to and talking to. The universities have knowledge, but they have not known how to transfer that knowledge without the partnership."