The art of teaching science

Waitsburg teacher Pam Nolan-Beasley talks with her students after a science lesson.

Waitsburg teacher Pam Nolan-Beasley talks with her students after a science lesson. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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WAITSBURG — “We’re going to do some discoveries!”

Pam Nolan-Beasley smiles at her Waitsburg Elementary School kindergartners, whose faces light up as they sit in class and listen with a focus uncommon for 6-year-olds. She holds their attention with the patience of an experienced professional, acknowledging raised hands and answers shouted out of turn all the while sharing in her students’ enthusiasm for today’s science lesson.

Her students sing melodies detailing the scientific method when prompted, a process they understand unusually well for their age.

But with Nolan-Beasley at the helm, that’s not surprising.

The kindergarten teacher was recently awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, the highest governmental honor for K-12 math and science teachers. It is given annually to two educators from each state.

Waitsburg’s schools Superintendent Carol Clarke said in her letter nominating Nolan-Beasley that her classroom skills were a primary reason the school board has used funding to support full-day kindergarten.

Focusing on science in a kindergarten classroom might seem unusual, but Nolan-Beasley said that’s actually the perfect time.

“We’re trying to grow more scientists and engineers, so this is the best place to get those attitudes going,” she explained.

The calm in her classroom doesn’t last for long as she announces the day’s science experiment. Each student will be given the lid of a cardboard box as a work surface, then will be tasked with making a small wheel-like object move across it.

When a student suggests the wheel might roll, she prompts the class, asking, “Can we tell if it will roll just by looking at it?”

The students shake their heads in unison, knowing their hypothesis must be tested. They’re given other materials to work with, too — triangle-shaped foam blocks and Popsicle sticks — but it’s up to them to figure out what they want to use.

It might sound simple, but as the lesson progresses, Nolan-Beasley prompts students toward a better understanding of physics, focusing on the ways an object at rest can be made to move.

When one student uses his foam triangle as a ramp to get his wheel rolling faster, she has him demonstrate for the whole class, then tells him he’s doing exactly what engineers do every day.

In college — she has a master’s degree from Washington State University and a bachelor’s from Eastern Washington University — Nolan-Beasley focused on foreign languages and bilingual education. She enjoyed science classes but said she never had a particular love for science over other subjects. Her dedication to teaching it, she said, comes from the hands-on approach to instruction, and the ubiquity of science and technology in our world.

Kindergartners are easy to teach too, because they’re curious and enthusiastic.

“Their excitement is so contagious,” she said. “They’re just thinking all the time and inquiring all the time. We just have to be a little bit patient with what looks like chaos, but isn’t.”

Nolan-Beasley is active outside her own classroom as a facilitator for the Washington State Leadership and Assistance for Science Education, an organization that brings top science teachers together to help develop curriculum and assist colleagues in professional development. She regularly helps other teachers include science in their curriculums.

Many think it’s going to take time away from other subjects, so she tries to help them get past that hurdle with lessons that incorporate other skills.

“(Science) is not a separate subject. It can involve math and reading and writing,” she said.

Her award includes a trip to Washington, D.C., where she may get to meet President Obama. She also will receive a $10,000 grant to be used at her discretion to further science in her classroom.

“It took a while for it to soak in,” she said of finding out she had won the award. “I’m excited about the opportunities.”

By the end of their 45-minute science period, Nolan-Beasley’s students are using Popsicle sticks to launch their wheels into the air and setting up ramps to direct them into buckets and across multiple box lids.

Many have created impromptu groups to test theories or show off their own work. The energy in the room is still going strong when Nolan-Beasley calls students to attention to review how pushing and pulling objects can set them in motion.

“You know what I loved about that lesson?” she asks the class. “I didn’t have to teach you guys anything. You guys figured it all out.”

Rachel Alexander can be reached at rachelalexander@wwub.com or 509-526-8363.

Comments

PeggyJoy 8 months, 1 week ago

The country needs more teachers like Pam Nolan-Beasley. Most of all, we need more money spent on education, and less on military build-up. Spending trillions on weapons, and then keeping our citizens ignorant shows complete lack of intelligence by members of Congress.

The USA ranks #18 in education. http://worldtop20.org/worldbesteducationsystem

BUT, the USA ranks #1 in Military spending. http://elitedaily.com/news/world/top-10-military-powers-world/

Really something to be proud about! Right!

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