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CARBONDALE - Officials from the Illinois Math and Science Academy are bringing their hands-on, problem-based approach to learning to some local students this week.

As part of its "Summer Sleuths" program, IMSA officials and teachers trained in the school's techniques are hosting students at Unity Point Elementary School through Wednesday.

Students are asked to work on solving a real world problem. Like much of the curriculum at IMSA, students found their classroom outside of the school on Monday as they sought to develop ideas on how to relieve traffic congestion.

Personal aircraft vehicles and alternative fuels were a part of the conversation which ultimately led outside to the parking lot where students were met by a visitor.

With a hot morning sun beating down on them, the nine students between Grades 5 and 8 hovered over a hybrid car and another car with a traditional engine. Led by Chuck Walker, a service manager at Vic Koenig Chevrolet car dealership, the group learned the basics about the two different engines.

"If it has an engine and batteries, why is it smaller than the other car?" one student asked, of the hybrid.

"Do you guys have plug-in cars yet?"

"What does a cylinder do?"

One by one, Walker answered the questions and explained to students the differences between the vehicles.

The Sleuths program has been going on for about 14 years said Lucinda Dittmer, of IMSA, who spoke about problem-based learning.

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"They work on their problem solving skills and their ability to understand their own thinking," she said. "It helps them develop their ability to learn what they know and to gauge what they still need to know."

Using real world problems helps in this process said Marc Deem, a teacher from Springfield who is teaching in the program

Deem, who went through the IMSA-based teachers training course said he's always preferred having his students "get their hands dirty" to learn.

Unity Point 5th Grade Teacher Samantha Hunt also went through the IMSA training and, prior to the trip to the parking, lot appeared to have the kids just as engaged in the classroom in a back and forth discussion about transportation and vehicles.

Smiling as the kids gave their answers, Hunt dutifully wrote them down on large sheets of paper. But no sooner did she write then another answer came.

That, Dittmer said, is exactly what the teachers are aiming for.

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