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Science comes alive when your teacher lets you get your hands dirty

As an eighth grader at Edwards Middle School, I was required to submit a science fair project, complete with tri-board, research paper and artifacts. Around this same time, for some reason I was drawn to the Bounty “quicker-picker-upper” commercials, so I wanted to test paper towels for my project. The idea was rejected by my teacher. My second choice was testing nail corrosion in soda. Rejected again. Hard vs. soft water? Rejected.

Out of desperation, I decided to revive my older sister’s science fair project: the effect of different colored lights on the growth of plants. She had done all the work; all I needed to do was revamp some things, redo some things, and I would be set. I presented the idea to my teacher (leaving out the fact that my sister had already done the project), and I was finally given the go-ahead.

I basically redid the project, but I missed the opportunity to experience the essence of a science project — posing a legitimate question, hypothesizing a solution, and then investigating an answer. I eluded the challenge of thinking for myself.

Making potatoes glow a lightbulb, erupting volcanoes, launching rockets, dissecting frogs, growing mold in a petri dish or plants in a paper towel — the list goes on with fascinating hands-on, project-based lessons in science. The lessons of science became much more tangible when I had dirt on my hands, goggles on my face, or perplexing questions in my head.

The importance of real-life, palpable learning is certainly not a new concept, but it does run the risk of being overshadowed by more pressing considerations. Public school teachers operate under pressures that are rooted far outside the walls of their classroom — pressures like mandated testing, pushed curriculum, evaluated instruction and daunted children.

However, there are gladiators who forge confidently into the battle for doing what is best for students. Regardless of these other considerations, teachers like Dorothy Johnson, computer science teacher at Blackmon Road Middle School, strive to focus on the engagement and real-life application of their lessons.

For teachers like Mrs. Johnson, a day in her middle school classroom becomes good practice for a day in a future high school classroom. Her goal with each lesson is not to check off a box that yet another curriculum standard has been met. It’s not about how well she will do on the yearly evaluations of her effectiveness. Nor is it about the big test that comes at the end of the school year.

Her focus is on preparing her students for something they don’t even see yet — the future. Mrs. Johnson is much like my eighth grade science teacher who required all of her students to think, problem-solve, question,and hypothesize. There is no textbook or educational class in college that teaches a teacher how to teach these skills, but what vital skills they are — for high school and beyond.

Teachers who grasp the value of applicable activities within the classroom are the ones to credit with the thinkers who engineered a car that parallel parks itself or a lady named Siri or the future cure for cancer. Through challenging her students to think and tackle difficult, real-world challenges, teachers like Mrs. Johnson light the fire of learning at a young age that help create life-long learners who lead, invent and imagine. So, we’re thankful for teachers like her.

Sheryl Green: