An innovative partnership between Starkville School District and Mississippi State University teaches key science concepts in a week-long intensive immersion program for fourth and fifth graders.
"Our goal is to give students a fun, safe and educational forum in which to generate enthusiasm and interest in science and the environment," said Jessica Tegt, MSU Extension Service assistant professor with the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture.
For the past three years, Starkville School District has partnered with MSU’s College of Forest Resources to conduct the Science Club, an after-school program at Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary that provides hands-on activities aligned with curriculum standards for science. Tegt and Extension associate for conservation education Leslie Burger built on the proven success of the Science Club to develop the Youth Environmental Science, or YES! program. Burger said the Science Club boosted test scores and the YES! program is designed to do the same.
"Mississippi elementary students are currently ranked 49th in the nation in science achievement scores," Burger said. "Research shows that students who perform poorly in subjects such as math and science as early as the fourth grade commonly continue to struggle with these topics through high school and beyond."
YES! invites teachers to bring their students to a six-room series of thematically designed rooms or laboratories for a week of intensive science instruction. One day consists of a field trip, either to the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge or the Plymouth Bluff Center. The remaining four days are spent studying ecology, ornithology, forestry or forest products, earth science, and humans and the environment.
"This unique approach for introducing environmentally-based science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education into community classrooms will unite resources and teaching expertise from personnel at MSU and the school district," Burger said. "Students will be evaluated immediately before and after the week-long program, and a second post-test given at the end of the school year will assess knowledge retention and application of what they’ve learned."
Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary teacher Debbie Christopher has dedicated 25 years to teaching and enjoyed the week-long experience.
"Kids love science, especially when they can get their hands in it," Christopher said. "Our trip to the Noxubee Refuge gave them a chance to hike, feel fur pelts and skulls, and make animal tracks with molds."
In the science library, students played math and science games, created animal-based art and read books about the environment and solar system.
"We’ve got a lot of noise, but it’s productive noise," Christopher said. "They’re engaged in learning about the world around them. The fourth grade curriculum is all about Mississippi, and this week has helped them see their state in a different way."
Students enjoyed the hands-on experiences at the refuge and in the labs.
"Science is my favorite subject, and instead of reading about it, we got to do real science experiments," said nine-year-old Eric Godwin. "At the refuge, I liked walking through the forest, and we saw an alligator."
In addition to improving test scores and developing a life-long interest in science in these students, Tegt hopes the program will expand over time and serve as a model for teachers and other school districts.
"Ideally, YES! Will train teachers to deliver science content in their own classrooms, replicating the elements they see here," Tegt said. "We hope teachers will become more comfortable with teaching STEM topics as they see the resources available to them and how much kids love science when they get outside and experience it firsthand."
YES! Will host an open house on Friday, Sept. 16, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the back building of Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary.