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Workshop Inspires Science Teachers to Do and Learn

Jeannine Huenemann


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Teachers crafted rockets & cars as part of lesson prep at a USU STARS GEAR UP workshop in February.
43 Utah teachers came to the Feb. USU STARS! workshop
43 Utah science teachers left the workshop better prepared for the classroom.
Lessons like rocket-building were taken back to their schools

What do you get when you give teachers the chance to be students and learn new ideas and ways of teaching science? You get a large group of energetic teachers willing to spend a Saturday learning alongside their peers, and excited to take what they learned back into their classrooms. On Feb. 8-9, teachers from across the state put in an extra day after the 2019 Utah Science Teachers Association (UtSTA) annual conference to learn applied science and physics activities at a workshop sponsored by the Utah State University STARS! GEAR UP program.

Forty-three area middle and high school science teachers built drag racers and rockets in a group led by Duane Merrell of the Utah Space Grant Consortium. Merrell, a teaching professor in the physics department at Brigham Young University, has a passion for teaching physics to teachers. Merrell has undergraduate degrees in math and physics and a master’s degree in instructional design from Utah State University, and taught high school physics for twenty years before he started teaching at BYU. His lessons explored the principles of energy, force, and motion through the activities of designing, building, and racing rockets and cars. As an educator, his contributions to physics education have received national recognition through a distinguished service award from the American Association of Physics Teachers in 2017.

“I don’t think teaching is what lots of people think it is when they get into it,” Merrell said. “I think that it’s more encompassing—you invest yourself as a teacher,” said Merrell in an interview on the BYU website. He added that teaching doesn’t end in the classroom or as the school day ends, but instead it “can stay with you all night long, and it’s there tomorrow morning when you come back to work.” This is the sort of passion that he brings to his workshops.

Teachers attending the workshop couldn’t agree more. “I attended in the past and knew that GEAR UP workshops the day after UtSTA were amazing and gave us fantastic resources to work with and take back to the classroom and implement right away,” said Heidi Griffin, science teacher from North Davis Junior High School. Another science teacher, Chris Walter from Innovations High School said that he “attended to get some new ideas for activities,” adding that “I want to make [lessons] more hands-on, more investigative, and also to collaborate with teachers in similar interests.”

“We do, we talk, and we bring stuff back that we can immediately apply to our classroom,” said Darin Orton, science teacher at Mount Logan Middle School. “Kids are more engaged when they are using their hands and their brains, and so these types of activities where they can build something and try it and see it, and then try it again are very effective at getting their brains working.”

April Anderson, science teacher at North Sanpete High School, said that she attended the workshop to “find a love for science that has kind of dwindled once in a while.” When asked about how the program has helped her, she said “The first time that I had any connection with GEAR UP, our GEAR UP Coordinator, Heather Hafen, had me go to an engineering camp at USU over the summer, and that was pretty inspirational, to see the kids for five-days, light up and see their creativity. It helped me bring all of that excitement back to the students.”

Professional development resources for teachers, such as this workshop, classroom materials, and other conferences throughout the year, are provided as part of the USU STARS! GEAR UP program. Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) is a federal initiative to increase the number of students who are prepared to enroll in and succeed in college. USU currently administers four seven-year grants at participating schools in both rural and urban settings throughout the state. Each grant supports all the students in a grade-band, starting in seventh-grade, through their senior year of high school, and continuing on to their first year of college.