Local teachers 'investigate' Elkhart River, pick up lessons

Several area schools, most notably the newly named Roosevelt STEAM Academy, are adopting project-based and student-led methods of teaching.

Posted on Aug. 7, 2014 at 8:25 p.m.

Chatter bounced off the walls of the concrete pavilion as teachers crowded in, laughing and shaking rainwater droplets off their hair and clothes.

They clutched buckets filled with dirt, muddy water, tiny creatures, rocks and shells, all gathered during a canoeing and kayaking expedition down the Elkhart River from Mottville, Mich., to Hermance Park in Bristol Wednesday, Aug. 6.

The teachers were students, gleefully reveling in their river finds and discovering how nature can help them teach kids math, science, even writing. 

Local schools are changing their teaching methods and embracing something called STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math).

The river trip was part of 80 hours of training several local educators are going through over the summer, taught by ETHOS Science Center

At its core, STEAM pushes students to ask questions and lets teachers take the role of guide rather than the person who knows all the answers. 

STEAM also focuses on students doing hands-on projects instead of listening to lectures.

"When I was in school, I remember thinking, ’What will I ever use this for?’" Jamie Yoder, who works at Roosevelt Elementary School, said. "The kids won’t be asking that anymore."

Instead, students will be solving problems that people in the real world might have.

Concord math teachers Vickie Gowdy and Priscilla Taylor found a way to teach math using leaves, rocks and other things they picked up while canoeing down the river.

They spend part of the day Wednesday looking for the Fibonacci sequence of numbers in their specimens. 

Other teachers tested water depth, temperature and erosion level on shells picked up at different points in the river.

"They wanted us to think like students: what did we see that sparked our interest and curiosity?" Roosevelt teacher Yoder said. 

The summer training was conducted by Susan Disch, assistant director of ETHOS Science Center, and paid for by a Math and Science Partnership grant from the Indiana Department of Education and some additional funds from the schools or other donations. 

Teachers from Elkhart, Concord and Wa-Nee districts participated, as well as others from St. Thomas and the Montessori Academy in Mishawaka.

Roosevelt teachers are getting ready for the school’s transition into a STEAM Academy when school starts Aug. 15. 

Principal Jeff Komins said he’s amazed how interested his teachers are in the STEAM lessons, which they've planned out for at least the first eight or nine weeks of school. 

"They get just as excited as the kids do,” he said, smiling, watching as teachers gathered around clumps of mud at the park pavilion Wednesday. 

Roosevelt is the first of Elkhart Community Schools to become a STEAM school.

Other schools, like Chamberlain and Chandler in the Goshen district and Fairfield’s elementary schools are doing similar programs. 

Follow reporter Lydia Sheaks on Twitter at @LydiaSheaks

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