BLACKSBURG – People on Virginia Tech’s campus July 12, might have been surprised to see a group of lively elementary school students walking around. After two weeks these students from five area Blacksburg schools in 4th-6th grade wrapped up a free, two-week camp with VISTA, taught by teachers who included two from Salem schools.

VISTA stands for Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement, and is a one-year professional development program for elementary school teachers. Teachers have a four-week summer institute followed by continued implementation of VISTA teaching methods during the school year.

VISTA is designed to enhance science content knowledge and improve science teaching by applying principles of hands-on science, student-centered inquiry, the nature of science and problem-based learning. As part of the teachers’ program, they are able to try out their new teaching methods on a group of students for two weeks.

Terri Blankenship of Salem who teaches at Andrew Lewis Middle School said working with the kids was her favorite part of professional development thus far. This year, the theme of the student camp was sustainability. For two weeks, students worked in groups to answer the question: “How can we make Virginia self-sustainable?”

The final group presentations occurred on Friday, July 12, where students suggested using everything from tidal power to bridge batteries to solar-powered cars in order to make Virginia more self-sustainable. Each group explained their models highlighting how their idea would work and answered questions from a panel of professors from Virginia Tech and George Mason University. It was clear that every group of children was composed of motivated, intelligent students.

All of the teachers agreed that it had been a breath of fresh air to work with such driven kids. G.W. Carver Elementary School teacher David Walker of Salem said it was a rewarding experience to “watch kids who weren’t very good problem-solvers become good problem solvers,” and also admitted that he has “learned a lot more about having students find the answer, rather than leading them there.”

When comparing VISTA to other professional development programs, its length makes it especially different. Unlike professional development programs that only last a day, VISTA’s yearlong project provides a continual opportunity for reflection and improvement. “Beginning with a problem-based learning project and following it through allows students’ ideas to grow throughout the two weeks,” said Vinton teacher Lisa Anderson from Herman L. Horn Elementary.

Continuing the teaching methods over the following year also allows teachers to see the benefits of research-based learning. In the teachers’ last week of the four-week VISTA institute, principals from each school will come and discuss what the teachers found and how they think their experiences can better their classroom teaching methods.

Selection for the VISTA institute is competitive: two Salem teachers, Terri Blankenship and David Walker, were selected this year, while Falling Branch Elementary in Christiansburg had teachers Stacy Grubbs, Teri Ford and Rose Norris attend. Vinton teachers from Herman L. Horn Elementary include Lisa Anderson, Betsey Miles and Abigail Hudson.

– By Stephanie Floyd, intern

Local kids show off their completion certificates from the two-week VISTA camp.
Local kids show off their completion certificates from the two-week VISTA camp.

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