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Inquiry-Based Learning Approach Wins $20,000 Science Lab Challenge

A science teacher at the Westmount Charter School in Calgary, Alberta, Canada has won the $20,000 grand prize in the Shell Science Lab Challenge sponsored by Shell Oil Co. and the National Science Teachers Association.

Kristy Martens was awarded the prize for using a design-based teaching approach and using procedural instructions to help students explore scientific concepts and gain experience. This, in turn, helps develop critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Martens' Westmount Charter School has only two chemistry labs with inadequate ventilation and damaged lab surfaces where students share one sink, two electrical outlets, and no high school physics equipment. The grand prize includes a lab makeover worth about $20,000, including $8,000 in Shell cash grant, $8,000 in donated equipment, $1,000 in NSTA prizes, NSTA membership and NSTA Learning Center subscriptions for two teachers, and an expense-paid trip for two teachers to attend the 2012 NSTA National Conference on Science Education.

"Inquiry-based learning and hands-on experimentation are key elements for encouraging student interest in science," Frazier Wilson, vice president of Shell Oil Company Foundation and manager of social investment, said in a news release. "Exemplary science teaching is more relevant when it occurs in a quality lab environment where science concepts can be explored by students."

The competition asked sixth-to-12th grande science teachers in the United States and Canada to describe their school's current laboratory resources, explain why those laboratory facilities might be classified as "limited," and describe how they teach science education using those lab facilities. The answers were presented and judged by a panel of educators.

Four National finalists, Jennifer Bagardi of the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit; Lance Doss of Wagoner High School in Wagoner, OK; Manual Paul Pena of Longfellow High School for Pregnant and Parenting Mothers, in Minneapolis; and Denise Ponte and Joseph Mastroeni of the Roy W. Brown Middle School in Bergenfield, NJ were named national finalists. Finalists receive an $8,000 science lab makeover support package for their school, including a $3,000 Shell cash grant, $3,000 in donated labor equipment, $1,000 in NSTA prizes, and an expense-paid trip for one teacher to attend the 2012 NSTA National Conference on Science Education.

With only $600 to supply the science lab when Jalen Rose Leadership Academy opened in September 2011, Bagardi taught her ninth graders with an "Everyday Science" hands-on approach that employed low-cost items like gelatin and rubbing alcohol. Doss has no lab of his own and borrows equipment from colleagues as he works to create a lab within his special education classroom to allow for more differentiated lessons that meet the needs of students with wide-ranging disabilities. Pena shares a room with two other teachers teaching different disciplines in a facility built in 1903.

Ponte and Mastroeni share a room teaching 300 seventh and eighth graders in a classroom last updated in the late 1960s when new lab tables were installed.

"These science teachers have implemented truly remarkable science programs, providing quality lab experiences for their students with very little resources," said Francis Eberle, NSTA's executive director.

About the Author

Jim Barthold is a freelance technology reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].