“In college, I avoided math classes like the plague, and only took science classes with no math prerequisites.”
Nothing earth-shattering about the quote, except, perhaps, that it comes from a person who actually enjoys science.
But Sharon Milito, this year’s AAPG Teacher of the Year in Natural Resources and Earth Sciences, believes the problem wasn’t with the math and science, per se.
It was the delivery system.
And that may be why she’s such a good teacher – she knows how easy it is for students to be turned off from the subject.
“Students need to do science,” says Milito, who teaches fourth grade in Colorado Springs, Colo. “No matter the number of hands-on samples, terrariums and aquariums, if children do not see things in their natural setting they will not fully comprehend the science concepts.”
The natural setting of which she speaks does not entail expensive field trips to the Mojave or the Grand Canyon. Often, it’s right outside the school door.
What’s next is in the DNA of every child: play.
“That is when kids discover how things work,” Milito says. And she means all kids.
“The unstructured time is very much as important as structured time playing outside,” she believes, adding it’s during play that kids discover perhaps the first lesson of any good science curriculum:
“It is when students learn that science is often, literally, beneath their feet.”
Milito says that students “discover when you roll things down a slide, some things go further. Students create their own experiments based on their observations. They learn that bugs live under rocks and that ladybugs hide under the bark of trees.”
It is at this point, she says, where her work comes in.
“If a teacher can take some of these natural discoveries and guide them a bit, kids can gain even more understanding.”
The Second Time Around
Simply put: Kids find things to do, they make discoveries. And it was a discovery she, herself, made while teaching that changed her life.
“As a teacher,” she said, “I got so involved with teaching literacy skills that I almost totally forgot about science.”
At the time, Colorado College was offering scholarships for master of art degrees in “Teaching Integrated Natural Science.” She entered the program.
And for someone who was introduced to rocks at an early age by her grandfather (who was an amateur geologist) and, as a child, enjoyed the weekend excursions to her family’s cabin in the Rocky Mountains, it was like falling in love with an ex.
“I suddenly rediscovered, first of all, science, and second, the earth!” she said. “It was like getting back together with an old friend – only this time I got to know my friend much more intimately.
“I learned that the earth has kept a diary,” she said, “and I found that I could read it! I found out that every rock tells a story. It was fascinating to me.”
She says sharing that fascination with her fourth grade students is a team effort.
“My principal has been very supportive in my passion toward science and has allowed our fourth grade team to alter the order of the selections in our reading instruction series – to integrate those stories to match our science and social studies instruction schedule,” she said.
“That way our students get a double dose of science – by reading about the same things they are investigating in science as they are getting the reading instruction they need.”
The Real World
There is something else in her favor: she is always with her students.
“As an elementary teacher, I am fortunate that I have my students all day long, for all subjects,” Milito said. “It is easy for me to tie things together and integrate what I am teaching.”
One could argue that in middle or high school, due to the way classes are configured, that type of instruction is impossible.
But Milito would tell you the commitment to the reality of science in students’ lives is the point, even if they are attending five, six different classes per day with just as many different instructors.
“I think it is very important for students of all ages to have real-world experiences.”
More play time, more contact with the world than the inside of a classroom.
That goes for her, too.
Milito has earned basic and field certifications in paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and has acted as project paleontologist for two cooperative projects between the city of Colorado Springs and the museum. Her field studies have provided information for the master plans for two Colorado Springs open spaces.
Clearly, she no longer is afflicted by the plague of science and math instruction. She now wants to make sure others have the antidote, as well.
And she knows who should get the first dose.
“Most adults have truly lost touch with the earth,” she said. “My goal, now, is to reintroduce everyone I know to the miracles we walk past everyday.”
So far, it’s working.
“We had an older, out-of-state visitor stay at our house one time,” she said. “I took him on several excursions in our area. As he was leaving, his comment was, ‘Thank you for reintroducing me to the earth!’”