Rose Norris, a VISTA-taught 5th grade teacher at Prices Fork Elementary School in Southwest VA, allowed us into her classroom to witness her students engaging in a problem-based learning challenge. The student scientists were tasked with building an energy efficient wind turbine. In accordance with what she had learned at VISTA's Elementary Science Institute professional development program, Ms. Norris presented her students with the following "real world" type scenario:
Energy resources off the east coast of North America are very valuable. One of the most significant issues facing President Obama is whether to allow leasing offshore land for drilling oil and natural gas where production has been off limits. Scientists are investigating areas off the coast of VA to develop these resources. Residents and tourists, however, are concerned about the development of these energy resources in the Atlantic Ocean. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) will offer leases for drilling of oil and natural gas, and will also offer, for auction, the development of wind or tidal turbine farms off the east coast.
The question for the students was "How can we minimize the impact to the ocean environment if energy resources are developed off the coast of Virginia?"
After explaining the challenge to the students (to build an energy efficient vertical wind turbine), the exercise really got started, with students working in groups to create their turbines out of popsicle sticks, paper rolls, spoons, and more. They were even able to decorate them with markers and beads! The excitement in the classroom was palpable.
The students came up with some truly creative ideas, and at the end of the class, each group was able to test their wind turbine using an anemometer to measure the wind produced.
Ms. Norris explained, and we agree, that since she started teaching real world, hands-on science, her students have not only been more engaged, but more prepared for real world careers in the sciences; they are already working on issues (like efficient energy sources) that will be critical to improving our world in the years to come.