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"Science is the Great Equalizer"

Mary Ann Settlemyer is a teacher who’s comfortable all over the map. Not only the physical map of Virginia she created with her students on the school playground – complete with accurate topography – but also the metaphorical map of student ability.

During the school year, she teaches Advanced Academic Program (AAP) fourth graders at Centreville Elementary in Fairfax County. Her class is full of students identified as Gifted and Talented (GT) and others of high ability. The class also includes the “twice-exceptional”: GT students who also have an identified learning difference.

During the summer, Settlemyre runs “Summer Scholars,” a remedial enrichment program she designed around the strategies she learned at the 2012 VISTA Elementary Science Institute. The students invited to attend are at risk of not progressing at grade level.

“I took a PBL (problem-based learning) project, made science the focus and taught reading, math, writing through the PBL,” she says. “I can’t tell you how amazing the results were.

“These are kids who traditionally lose two levels of reading over the summer,” says Settlemyre. “We used multi-age groupings, rising first- through sixth-graders, with about 50 percent ESOL students.

“We did lots of work in teams – egg races, experimental science designs – and the students all did great. They came back to school with better attitudes, and out of 90 students, 85 either stayed at their (end-of-year) reading level or went up.

“VISTA completely changed how I teach,” says Settlemyre. I’ve been a teacher for 24 years, and I’m always looking for new opportunities to reinvent myself. The biggest revelation was saying, ‘why haven’t I been doing this before this year? How did I not do this before?’”


One of the things Settlemyre credits to problem-based learning is sparking creative thought and experimentation. “One of my students decided he wanted to perfect a boomerang,” she says. “He went home and ended up making 400 prototypes because he kept trying to make it better. And they all worked! Four hundred tries says a lot about how engaging this is.”

Several of the experiments have seemed more futuristic, according to Settlemyre. “The students created a car that was similar to a Tesla, but even better,” she says. “They’re coming up with solutions that people have never seen before and creating amazing products to help the world.

“It reminds me of the old TV show, ‘The Jetsons’."

"Some of the things they had on the show, like microwaves and moving walkways, are now commonplace. Someone had to think of those things, even though they were cartoons. And my kids are going home, thinking of things, and doing experiments on their own."

“It’s bringing creativity into the classroom in ways that are so exciting.”


Like many teachers, Settlemyre is conflicted about standards-based testing. “I don’t have a problem with assessments,” she says, “But (students) are taking SOLs at the end of fifth grade based on all of the fourth grade and fifth grade science. I’m just not sure it’s the greatest way to assess success. My proof is in their presentations.

“Some of these were kids who never engaged before -- kids who never did anything. They got their parents to take them to the Potomac to get water for sampling, they were so enthralled with the project. They saw themselves as scientists, as problem-solvers. That’s my proof.”


One of the things Settlemyre realized after implementing the VISTA strategies is that “problem-based learning works for everyone, it’s not meant for any one group of kids.”

Her AAP class is “in heaven” she says. “To let them go off and creatively problem-solve is so meaningful for them,” says Settlemyre. “They have to learn all the science, but they see the lessons as purposeful and that makes all the difference. For them, it took some of the things (in science) they didn’t find that intellectually challenging and gave them a purpose, and they differentiate for themselves because they find it interesting.

“We were looking at the impact of tornadoes, and one boy went home and built a tornado simulator. He didn’t have to – it wasn’t an assignment. But that’s how engaged he was.”

Problem-based learning appeals to students on the other end of the spectrum as well. “I found that kids who weren’t progressing anywhere else loved the science so much, they started progressing. You don’t have to be the best reader to figure things out, but your desire to figure things out makes you want to read more and that makes you a better reader.

“I had an ESOL student whose reading was deplorable,” she says. “But she was so excited about the science that she found ways to accommodate the fact that language was holding her back. She had other students read to her. She had her parents read to her. She was learning vocabulary like never before.

“She became an advocate for her own learning to get what she wanted.”

“Science is the great equalizer,” says Settlemyre.  “The VISTA training’s intense, but the outcome is just so good. Teaching with PBL opens a whole new world for your kids.”


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