Crozet Elementary Teachers Focus on Project-Based Learning at VMI STEM Conference

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By Rebecca Schmitz

Crozet Elementary teachers Barbara Albertson, Katherine Hamel, Atlanta Hutchins, Abby Claytor, Gay Baker, and Lori Phillips (L-R) pose with the VMI mascot at the VMI 2015 STEM Education Conference.
Crozet Elementary teachers Barbara Albertson, Katherine Hamel, Atlanta Hutchins, Abby Claytor, Gay Baker, and Lori Phillips (L-R) pose with the VMI mascot at the VMI 2015 STEM Education Conference.

Claudius Crozet would surely be proud that the college he helped found almost 200 years ago is having an impact on the lives of the children in the town that bears his name.  As a founder of Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and accomplished engineer, his important contributions to the Virginia infrastructure continue, even though he could not have imagined the vital role of science and technology in the area’s schools today.

In October, Crozet Elementary School’s third, fourth, and fifth grade teachers spent two days at the 2015 VMI STEM Education Conference, immersing themselves in the latest techniques and strategies for teaching technology. (STEM, which stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering and Math,” is a prime focus of Albemarle County schools’ curriculum.) The VMI conference focused on creating “21st century learners” through project-based learning, a teaching philosophy Crozet Elementary already subscribes to and implements. Fourth grade teacher Katherine Hamel said, “The mindset of 21st century learning is that you’re preparing the students for a future that you can’t predict. It’s not just about knowledge and content, but it’s about solving your own problems and giving kids the skills that they need to address whatever it is that they’re going to encounter.”

The conference’s emphasis on “project-based learning—a way of learning structured around a central problem or challenge that needs to be solved creatively—resonated with Crozet’s teachers.   Fifth grade teacher Brandy Garbaccio noted that the conference already aligned with much of Crozet’s teaching philosophy: “We learned a lot of valuable things, but we were teaching as much as we were learning.” Garbaccio, along with teachers Betsy Agee and Justin Stauffer, gave a presentation during the conference titled “Our Town: How to Combine STEM, Project-Based Learning, and Community Service.” The teachers shared with the audience their students’ work creating a plan to test the water quality of the creeks and streams running into Beaver Creek reservoir.  “We are looking to test the waters to see the water quality. We want to make a floating sensor that will detect the water quality and the pH level and will be part of our 3-D printer project-based learning that will happen in the spring.”

The experience speaking to a crowd was nerve-wracking at first. “It was a large theater, and we were a little nervous,” Garbaccio said. “We are conditioned for a more interactive experience with our peers and we were hoping the size wouldn’t affect our working with the attendees.”

Crozet’s teachers were proud to convey the results of what began as a small fifth grade project but has grown to involve multiple grades and incorporate many different subject areas. “It has transcended the grade levels, and it’s the students’ local community so they’re all invested in it,” Garbaccio said. “That’s what this type of project-based learning creates.” Katherine Hamel agreed:  “It encourages that kind of investigation and discovery and application.”  The attendees were eager to learn more, Garbaccio said. “After the presentation, we were approached by several different schools across Virginia asking about our process and details on how to implement a community-based project.”

Crozet’s teachers gained as much as they shared. The conference introduced them to new concepts and best practices for conveying complex technological concepts to their students. Third grade teacher Atlanta Hutchins found keynote speaker Dr. Jeff Goldstein, a nationally recognized science educator and astrophysicist, to be “really impressive.  He talked about the enormity of the universe and how we try to explain that to a student.  He showed us how to break it down to a student’s level so they could really understand the magnitude of things.”

The teachers participated in hands-on workshops that allowed them to experience the activities from their students’ perspectives. Garbaccio found these workshops particularly helpful:  “I worked with a LEGO Robotics kit that produced a fully functional robot. My team consisted of Abby Claytor [third grade teacher] and Justin Stauffer [fifth grade teacher]. We programmed commands through the LEGO Robotics software, which was then transferred to a processor. I liked that this provides an engineering and project-based learning opportunity where the students are able to create their own challenges through a personalized system.” Fourth grade teacher Katherine Hamel said that the workshops enabled them to “put ourselves in our students’ places. It’s good to remember how that feels, to not know how something will turn out.”

Garbaccio’s interest was also sparked by a presentation on aquaponics in the classroom. “I am a big fan of having an aquarium in my classroom. My students take ownership of their classroom jobs, but their favorite is caring for our fish. The first thing they do when a guest enters our classroom is introduce the fish.

With aquaponics, we would be able to share first-hand an organic cycle of growth. Plants grow in a soil-less environment where fish provide the natural fertilizer for the plants and the plants clean the aquarium water by absorbing nitrates. It’s chemical-free and would connect to our curriculum and our project about keeping our community water clean. Our science teacher, Justin Stauffer, is considering raising brook trout, and imagine how the two would work together!”

Hutchins learned about new mapping projects that would enhance the mapping unit her third grade students take as part of their SOL prep. “We got some great new resources. Third grade has to do mapping as an SOL, and we learned how to intertwine mapping with other SOLs like water conservation, and how your trash affects the watershed. It gave us really great ideas of what we wanted to do next year.”

Crozet Principal Gwedette Crummie said the conference was important enough that “Half of our teachers were in attendance as part of our vision of building a community of 21st century leaders.” She says that now that the teachers have returned from the conference, their goal is to lead the rest of the staff by sharing what they learned.

Garbaccio appreciates her principal’s commitment to giving them the tools to be as effective as possible.  “Ms. Crummie is always encouraging us to grow, and to give the best possible experiences to our students.  She’s willing to take a risk for the good of the students,” she said.  If VMI co-founder and renowned engineer Claudius Crozet were still alive, he would likely agree.

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