Kim Luckett is a fifth grade teacher at Belle Heth Elementary in Radford, Virginia. The 14-year teaching veteran attended VISTA's Elementary Science Institute (ESI) last summer at Virginia Tech, along with two other teachers from her school.
When Luckett returned to school after the Institute, she jumped right into her VISTA unit and completed the problem-based learning (PBL) project she had learned about at ESI.
“I did my PBL as part of my life science unit,” said Luckett. “I told the kids there was a new invasive species that may have worked its way down from Northern Virginia and the scientific problem they were faced with was to identify it.
“We started with cells and went on through the five kingdoms,” she said. “We looked at different species to determine what it could be. We compared our findings to pictures of parts of a mystery species that it could be. We even went out into our school’s garden and found pools of stagnant water and explored there.”
Luckett faced one major challenge however: she was the only fifth grade teacher at her school who attended the VISTA training. One of the goals of VISTA is to create a community of practice, so teachers from the same school are encouraged to attend ESI together. But, as often happens in a science experiment, things don’t always go as planned. The other VISTA-trained teachers taught in different grades.
“I did the whole unit in six weeks," said Luckett. “But I had to stay with other fifth grade teachers because we planned together.”
Luckett’s daily classroom schedule didn’t leave as much time as she would have liked to fully explore her PBL, so she got creative. “Our school devotes an hour each week for STEAM, which is STEM with arts added in,” said Luckett. “So I used that time too, and we did little activities along the way, a little here and a little there.
“I was still covering the same information in the same amount of time, but I added things in to the lesson plans. I tied in different scientific concepts and I emphasized the nature of science all the time," Luckett added.
According to the nature of science, the natural world is understandable; scientific knowledge is based upon evidence and can change; and creativity plays an important role in science.
Dr. Michael Bentley, Luckett's VISTA instructional coach, said, "Kim has done very well incorporating the nature of science. She brought it into every single lesson. She would do something like have the kids in teams of four examining rocks. Each group would have maybe 18 samples that they would try to identify. They had similar rocks but came up with different identifications. So Kim would ask, 'What about the nature of science could lead you to have two groups with the same evidence come up with different conclusions?’"
Another thing that’s evolved about Luckett's teaching is how she handles inquiry in her classroom. “The way I learned it at the VISTA camp last summer – having the students come up with questions – is definitely different and makes them think more. The kids have become way more involved than they normally would!"
And as for the mystery species – it was a tree fungus!