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Neal Grandgenett
Neal Grandgenett. photo by Tim Fitzgerald

Making the Abstract Tangible

by Susan Houston Klaus

Any student who has tried to grasp complex concepts in math and science knows that being able to apply them makes learning a lot easier – and a lot more interesting. The same goes for those who teach these principles in today's classrooms. For educators, making the abstract tangible is an important part of their job.

To help make these subjects more meaningful to students and to encourage peer-to-peer interaction among educators, the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) College of Education has offered online graduate courses to teachers in the Omaha area and around the country. The courses have been supported by grants from NASA, as well as support from the Nebraska Space Grant Consortium and the UNO Office of Internet Studies (OIS) at the college.

"We're giving teachers a way to model how scientists collaborate and work together in the real world," says Neal Grandgenett, OIS co-director, professor of teacher education and project director for the courses. "This provides the tools they need to support collaborative, technology-based learning."

The courses available to teachers truly run the gamut. They include America's Virtual Farm Project, launched in 2000, which helped teachers in the Midwest apply NASA technologies to farming. Teachers in more than 150 rural communities took part in the course, learning about remote sensing, geographical information systems and NASA satellite technology as related to farming.

In 2004, UNO was chosen to participate in NASA's Aeronautics in America. The project teamed students, teachers and professors from middle schools and universities with NASA engineers. Frequently, the engineers would present technologies and concepts currently being used at the organization via an online teleconferencing system. In turn, students got a chance to discuss their own projects and ask questions of the NASA team.

Recently, the college concluded a three-year grant for the Earth Systems Science Education Alliance (ESSEA) graduate course. Funded by the NASA ESSEA, UNO was one of 20 universities chosen to participate in online course delivery of math and science concepts to elementary, middle and high school teachers. In each experience, teachers study four units of earth science – deforestation, volcanoes, sea ice and hurricanes – that reference current NASA data and studies.

Participants are charged with creating innovative activities to take back to the classroom while incorporating Internet resources and research into the assignments. During the spring 2005 semester, teachers designed activities ranging from calculating the volume of ice formations and exploring ways to save the rain forests to creating mini-volcanic activity with soda water and food coloring, and plotting hurricane coordinates using pre-calculus formulas.

While NASA makes the courses financially possible, Omaha-area instructors, including retired physics teacher Bill Schnase and science instructor Steve Hamersky, coordinate with NASA and help facilitate the collaborative dialogue. Hamersky, who teaches at Gross High School, got involved in the program first as a student, then quickly found himself involved in helping personalize the lessons for Nebraska and the Midwest.

"We're trying to help teachers look beyond the day-to-day classroom and gain a wide scope of what they're really trying to do with students," he says. "Today's students aren't passive learners anymore. Using the Internet has become a way to plan activities that include active learning and exploration, and combine them with the traditional ways to learn new material." 

Since the programs began, more than 400 teachers have taken part in the courses. Their feedback is enthusiastic: "I was so excited to have the opportunity to take this class this semester," says one teacher. "After taking the class, I can see how even children can learn about earth sciences and make the connections between different parts of their world. I can't wait to see my own students try out this concept next fall."

Susan Houston Klaus is a contributor to UNO's annual Omaha World-Herald insert.  She can be reached at shoustonklaus@hotmail.com.

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