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Science class may never be the same
RHHS teacher among 10 learning to bring local environment into lessons
St. Catherines Island guide Jennifer Hilburn discusses beach erosion with teachers and course instructors. (l-r) Ron Phillips, Richard Riley, Hilburn, Mary Jo Fina, KatyMcCurdy, Charles Belin, Rose Laughter, Carol Ebel, Amy Owenby and Karyn Chester. - photo by Provided

Science class may never be the same for Amy Owenby’s students at Richmond Hill High School. Owenby is one of 10 teachers who participated in an intensive, two-week summer course designed to improve the teaching of science and mathematics.

The course was aimed at teachers at public schools in coastal Georgia and was a joint effort between Armstrong Atlantic State University and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography.

"This course will improve the way I teach by incorporating the natural environment, its history and mathematical concepts to science," said Owenby. "I now have a way to deliver a new concept with the area in which my students live."

The course was titled "Georgia Barrier Islands: Natural Laboratories for Inquiry-Based Learning and Teaching of Science." It was sponsored by Armstrong Atlantic’s "Partnership for Reform in Science and Mathematics" (PRISM) program. PRISM is a National Science Foundation funded program whose ultimate goal is to raise expectations and student achievement in science and mathematics through highly collaborative partnerships between K-12 teachers and university faculty.

"The presenters, field trips and hands-on activities have made this class so memorable," Owenby said. "I do not believe I will ever forget the inquiry-based lessons I have learned, and I will be able to pass this on to my students."

The course curriculum was a mixture of classroom learning with field experiences.

It included a day-trip to St. Catherines Island, an overnight excursion to Ossabaw Island and a kayaking trip to Little Tybee Island. Along the way, they learned about wide range of subjects.

"In this truly interdisciplinary course, the teachers were immersed into the history and science of coastal Georgia’s barrier islands," said Sabrina Hessinger, PRISM coordinator at Armstrong Atlantic. "They investigated integrated science and mathematics topics related to the natural history of these islands."

On a trip to St. Catherines Island, the teachers covered a variety of subjects from history to natural sciences. They stood in the footprint of a 16th century church where Franciscan missionaries and Guale Indian worshipped more than a century before the founding of Savannah and learned about the earliest European settlements on Georgia’s coast.

The group visited a fresh water pond that serves as a rookery for hundreds of egrets, wood storks and other birds.

They also learned about the island’s captive-wildlife program, including an up-close encounter with the island’s lemur colony. A trip to the beach demonstrated a vivid example of the erosion and accretion that are major forces on the barrier islands.

"The first step to exciting students about science is to inspire their teachers," said Peter Verity, education coordinator at Skidaway Institute, who led the team that designed the course curriculum. "The work we did this summer will produce results in these teachers’ classrooms in the fall."

In addition to field experiences, the course also included classroom work and study on subjects such as the geology of barrier islands; estuarine ecosystems; edible plants; archaeology and carbon dating; whelk and oyster colonies; coastal Georgia past, present and future; and global climate change. Each day the instructors and student-teachers developed grade-specific activities that the teachers will take directly back to their own classrooms.

Another participant, Mary Jo Fina, will be moving to Richmond Hill Middle School from Coastal Middle School in Savannah this fall. She said she takes several courses every summer.

"This class ranks among the best - with instructors presenting best practice methods, modeling inquiry based learning and making a personal connection and commitment to each participant," she said. "The settings chosen, St. Catherines Island, Ossabaw Island and Tybee Island, help heighten interest as the content connects not only to the real world, but the real world in our own back yard."

The course also included participation from the Ossabaw Island Foundation and the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service.

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