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Kids learn chemistry by hand

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The Periodic Table, a chart of the earth’s elements organized by their chemical similarities, could be considered dry academic material. But make a game out of it, and suddenly the urge to know more about each element, its atomic weight and relation to the others, is not only necessary but kind of fun. That’s how Yellow Springs High School students Taylor Beck and Julia Tarpey described their work last month to create such a game, which they named “Atomic Mountain.” They presented their project during last week’s school board meeting as an example of the project-based learning the district aims to use as the foundation of the curriculum.

Beck and Tarpey are students in Brandon Lowry’s chemistry class. They, like Lowry’s 60 other chemistry students, spent about three weeks conceptualizing, drafting and revising their game based on peer reviews and trials. The game is about a village that has lost electric power during a windstorm. The object is to answer trivia about the electronegativity and atomic radii of the elements and be the first to climb the mountain and restore power  to the village. The students of three chemistry classes voted Atomic Mountain as the best game in the class.

The hands-on process was engaging for Beck, who learns visually, she said during the board meeting. She was also encouraged by the revisions and thought they made the game better. And throughout the process, Beck maintained an interest in possibly pursuing chemistry as a future career.

According to Lowry, the students used a project-based tuning protocol to incorporate critical feedback from their peers to improve the projects. The process worked, he said, and he saw evidence that students were developing long-term understanding of the fundamental concepts of chemistry.

And just because project-based learning is becoming more central to the curriculum doesn’t exclude other modes of teaching and learning, Lowry said.

“PBL is a portion of the curriculum, but just because you have PBL doesn’t mean you don’t have lectures and other more traditional tools as well,” he said.

Since September, a group of district administrators, teachers and community members have travelled to four different schools around the country to observe innovative teaching and learning models based on PBL that could be adapted for use in the local schools. The group visited High-Tech High in San Diego, Calif., Wayne New Tech High School in Wayne, Ind., Winter Woods Academy of Global Studies in Cincinnati, and the Genesee Community Charter School in Rochester, N.Y. The district is also collaborating with the Dayton STEM school and High-Tech High for training in how to create PBL lessons.

The district intends to present an update on its curriculum development to the wider community later this year, possibly in May. The sharing is expected to include a representative from High-Tech High.   

In other school board business:
• During its discussion about current levy rates, the board talked briefly about the district’s permanent improvement levy, which is set to expire at the end of the current year. The current 1.2-mill levy generates $130,000 per year and pays for facilities and permanent fixtures. District Treasurer Dawn Weller suggested that the district could use additional money for technology upgrades, a new roof on the south end of Mills Lawn and parts of the high school and security system upgrades. Though the board has not decided whether to renew the levy at the same millage or raise it, Weller recommended the board file the levy for the November election, as including it in a special election in May would be an additional cost for the district.  

The board verified the amounts and rates of the current tax levies for the Greene County Auditor, which include a 15.65-mill emergency levy expected to generate $1,975,000, a 2.3-mill bond retirement levy for $303,759, and general fund levies, whose inside and outside millage will generate $2,510,000 in 2013.  

• The board gave support for two grant proposals for funds from the Yellow Springs Education Endowment. The first request from YSHS and McKinney art teachers  was for $1,300 to purchase two iPads for the art program. Art teachers Karleen Materne and Elisabeth Simon hope to use the mini computers to help students maintain and add to the digital art portfolios they started at Mills Lawn on the online host Artsonia. The technology will allow each student to keep two pieces of artwork from each school year in their online portfolios. Artsonia also allows visitors to the site to order paraphernalia such as t-shirts, mugs and notecards printed with their child’s artwork. According to Materne, 20 percent of the proceeds benefit the school the student attends.

The other grant proposal came from yoga teachers Gail Lichtenfels and Jen Ater to use $4,600 to offer two 4-week sessions of yoga classes, one for McKinney/YSHS students in the spring and one for K–6 students in the fall. The classes would be offered once per week and would focus on teaching the “conscious art of relaxation,” including breathing, flexibility and strength building.
• The board accepted the retirement of McKinney physical education teacher Sarah Lowe, who has taught for 35 years, and instructional aid Cheryl Ayrsman, who has been with the district for 25 years.  

• The board accepted a five-week contract for Title I aide Cassandra Lavendar-Clay at a pay rate of $14.83/hour.

• The board met on Feb. 11 to discuss mid-year evaluations for district administrators Weller and Superintendent Mario Basora.


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