Alison Roper, middle school science teacher at Immaculate Heart of Mary School, has more than twenty years of teaching experience — but nothing quite prepared her for the challenges of this past year.
“There is a saying, ‘the brain remembers what the hand does.’ I think this phrase sums up my teaching philosophy because science is best learned by actually doing the science,” said Alison. “During a typical year, my students frequently conduct experiments, gather research, work cooperatively in groups, and engage in activities where they apply what they learned about a topic. I think it is so important for middle school students to get experience using different types of scientific equipment so when they go to high school, they have a good foundation on which they can learn more difficult topics.”
Due to COVID restrictions — students were no longer able to share equipment or work in small groups — Alison has had to shift how “the hands do” in her science classroom. We chatted with Alison to learn more about the middle school science curriculum at IHM and how she’s brought back the art of drawing science.
CHATTING WITH ALISON ROPER, MIDDLE SCHOOL SCIENCE TEACHER AT IMMACULATE HEART OF MARY SCHOOL
Tell us a little bit about yourself. How long have you been teaching science at IHM? What grades do you teach?
I grew up in Bradenton, FL, and majored in Environmental Horticulture at Florida Southern College. I decided I wanted to be a teacher so I took classes at USF while substitute teaching in Sarasota County. The next year, I moved to Maryland to teach middle school science in Anne Arundel County Public Schools. I taught middle and high school during my 13 years in the county. After 13 years, I needed a change so I accepted a part-time position at Immaculate Heart of Mary teaching 6th and 8th grades. I ended up loving this school and teaching here, so I stayed! This is my seventh year teaching at this school. I teach 6th – 8th grade science.
Tell us a little bit about the science curriculum at IHM.
The curriculum is based on the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards). 6th graders learn mostly earth science, 7th graders life science, and 8th graders learn about chemistry and physics. Topics 6th graders learn about are: the rock cycle, weathering/erosion, structure of the earth, plate tectonics, history of the earth, weather, geochemical cycles (water, carbon, nitrogen cycles) with a little ecology at the end of the year. Topics 7th graders learn are: cells and organelles, organic molecules, osmosis and diffusion, cell division, photosynthesis and cellular respiration, genetics, human body systems, and evolution. Topics 8th graders learn about are: atoms and molecules, trends in the periodic table, chemical reactions, Newton’s 3 Laws, types of energy, electricity and magnetism, and astronomy.
Every teacher has a favorite unit. Which is your favorite unit to teach and why?
I really enjoy teaching chemistry because it is very logical to teach and understand, especially about the periodic table. Atoms react in different ways because of the number of electrons they have. The periodic table is like a puzzle that needs to be solved and deciphered. Once you know how to interpret the periodic table, you will know how atoms will bond with each other and their properties. My most favorite demonstration I do is setting magnesium on fire to show how reactive it is! It gives off a brilliant white light which is why it is used for fireworks. At the beginning, students tend to be intimidated by the topic, but once they start learning more about it, it is neat for me to see the lightbulbs go off in their brains.
How has your curriculum and teaching changed since COVID?
During a normal year, my students would either pair up or work in groups to conduct experiments, complete activities, or collaborate about different topics. This year, since students cannot work close together or share scientific equipment, my method of teaching has changed a lot. I try to approach my science teaching as positive as possible with all of the limitations.
To try to limit the amount of worksheets I pass out, I am having students write one-page notes, which include the most important information with sketches and drawings so students can visualize the topics as much as possible. I show students how to accurately draw sketches of different scientific things such as types of faults, different types of rocks, and organelles found in cells. I feel like drawing scientific phenomena is kind of like a long-lost art: students are usually reading and looking at pictures in a textbook or online source. When they draw these sketches in class, they are thinking about the shapes and drawing them 3-D when they can. I think this allows students to understand science a little more. I also have my students add color to their notes when they can. I think this aids in their learning and understanding of the material. My students are essentially building their own textbook with the notes they take.
Instead of students conducting experiments in groups, I give demonstrations to students as a group. For example, I used my document camera to show my 7th graders how the catalase enzyme in different foods (carrots, potato, and apple) break down hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen gas. Both groups of students (in class and virtual) were able to sketch before and after pictures of each type of food and record their observations, just like they would have done in groups if they were able to set up the test tubes themselves.
One last example of how my lessons have changed due to COVID is when possible, to have students individually complete projects that normally would have been done in groups. For example, usually my 6th graders work in groups to write a cinquain poem about a mountain formation. They research a specific mountain and collaborate to write the poem. This year, each student chose a mountain from a list, researched it, and wrote their own cinquain poem about it. They also presented their poems to the class. I actually prefer it this way since each student is accountable for their own work.
What has surprised you about teaching science during COVID?
I have realized that teaching in person and virtual students at the same time is very similar to how I taught my students during our ‘Learning from Home’ period during the spring. During the spring, I had to plan a one-size fits all lesson that students could complete on their own, at any time of the day. Since students right now cannot use science equipment or work in groups, they are completing assignments very much like ones I planned in the spring. I did notice that planning lessons like this definitely made me think more creatively about how to present information I was teaching. I had to think ‘outside the box’ to both effectively and efficiently prepare information that students could access and learn on their own. I made many youtube videos for students and this was both fun and educational for me as well! Along the way I learned better ways to record videos, present information, and engage students. I think this whole experience has made me a better teacher as a result.
How have you been able to keep science hands-on in the classroom with COVID precautions in place?
When possible, I try to have students complete similar activities they would have during a normal school year. For example, when studying layers of the earth, my 6th graders usually calculate how many milliliters of liquids (water, rubbing alcohol, dish soap, etc.) they need to represent accurately the thickness of the different layers. Because students can’t work in groups this year and share supplies, instead, they calculated and constructed a three dimensional model of the five layers of earth. Another example when my 7th graders dissected mushrooms during our fungi unit. The students learned the parts of a typical mushroom, took a close look at the gills under the mushroom’s cap, and took spore print of the mushroom. For the virtual students, I made take-home kits of everything they needed and their parents came by the school to pick them up. They were able to follow along with everything we did at home.
What is one thing you’ll take away from this experience?
My big takeaway from this whole teaching during COVID experience is that teachers will teach and students will learn, no matter if they are in person or virtual. I have had to greatly re-think much of how I typically teach science. I have had to adapt and improvise to teach my lessons the best way I can and I think it has made me a better teacher as a result.