In its efforts to nurture entrepreneurial STEM teacher leaders, the EnLiST project strives to engage EnLiST Fellows in ever expanding collaborations and learning networks that cut across science content areas and classrooms, as well as school levels and buildings, both within and across the EnLiST partner school districts. This aim is a major focus of the program’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Summer Institute, where Fellows are afforded opportunities to organize around, and lead, collaborative and innovative projects to help transform science learning for students across school building and levels.
In this context, Matt Sly, an EnLiST Fellow and high school science teacher at Urbana School District 116, pioneered a project for reciprocal learning between his students and the kindergarten and first grade students at Urbana’s Leal and Prairie Elementary Schools. Capitalizing on opportunities made possible through the EnLiST project, Sly teamed up with LaDonna Helm, Sandra Deville and Joyce Raney—EnLiST Fellows and teachers at the two elementary schools—to align the timeframe and units during which their students learn about earth and space science. Next, Sly tasked his high school students with helping their elementary counterparts learn about some key concepts in this science domain throughout the span of the shared units.
Simple hands-on activities that would help elementary students learn about many of the target astronomy concepts were not easy to come by given the nature of these concepts and the developmental level of elementary students. So, Sly’s students had a challenging task ahead of them. Sly was excited to see how his students’ understandings and creativity would come through as they attempted to figure out the best approach to work with elementary students: “From my perspective, it was interesting to see the way kids came up with their own models, with their own games, and with their own ways of engaging kids mentally and physically.”
To make the material relevant and meaningful to elementary students, high schoolers needed to represent the concepts at a level that was developmentally accessible to the kindergarteners and first graders. This meant Sly’s students first had to figure out their target audiences’ background knowledge. With support from EnLiST, the high school students used Flip cameras to interview their elementary counterparts about their ideas related to the earth, sun, and moon. Sly supported his students as they analyzed these ‘data,’ making sure to address some of the high schoolers’ naïve concepts in astronomy along the way. “I probably included some things that I normally wouldn’t have spent time on; content wise, and I think that was actually very beneficial because this project allowed me to clear up some misconceptions that my kids had that I wouldn’t have even thought to question it had I not spent time on getting them ready to teach kindergarten or first grade students,” says Sly.
Teaching to the kindergarten and first grade students has also given the high school students a real audience. Previously, Sly had relied on hypothetical audiences and situations. “Finally it was a real audience and it held [my students] accountable to that. I liked watching the kids’ creativity come out a bit more than maybe I would have seen otherwise, because they were making it for a different audience. It wasn’t a fake audience of kindergarteners; it was real.” The elementary students and their teachers were quite engaged with the activities that the high school students developed. Equally important was the fact that the latter students realized that the best way to learn something is to try to teach about it to others: In effect, both elementary and high school students were engaged with science teaching and learning, which brought about more favorable attitudes toward science and deeper science learning for all concerned. “Obviously, EnLiST was the motivating force behind this project,” says Sly.