It Came From Outer Space! (Sort Of)



It’s the Monday after Spring Break, and the students of Venice Elementary whisper conspiratorially. One student saw a shooting star last night. Another student’s father saw one that morning. A third student chimes in: they heard a weird whistling early in the wee hours of sunrise—could that be it? None can say for sure, all they know is that a meteor landed on the Venice Elementary School campus last night, skidding across the ground before coming to a stop by a hastily erected tent. And the scientists and caution tape make this serious business.

And it is serious business—education. Thanks to the Education Foundation of Sarasota County, these students, and their neighbors at Venice High School, will, through the end of the week, take part in a school-wide immersive educational project designed to engage the student body in hands-on learning. Like the “outbreak” experienced last month at Booker Middle School, teachers incorporate this latest natural phenomenon into their lesson plans, injecting fresh excitement and a sense of unity—and agency—in the students’ education.

For the elementary school students, the landing meant a crash course in earth sciences and scientific inquiry. Marching in groups to the discovery site (the third graders brought their clipboards), they met the brave scientists from University of South Florida—Dr. Mitch Ruzek and Dr. Dana Zeidler—tasked with handling the meteor. After questioning the pair as to the nature of this extraterrestrial intrusion, and how it could have arrived on their campus, the students broke off to continue their own explorations. Some measure, some take a closer look at pieces broken off the meteor upon impact, pouring water over them first to be sure they’re cool to the touch after atmospheric re-entry. The third graders pull out their clipboards and sketch possible trajectories and angles of approach. Throughout the week, whether through specialized vocabulary, a hands-on experiment or a semi-guided flight of fancy for the young imagination, each class finds a way to bring the meteor, figuratively, into the classroom.

“These immersion, inquiry-based projects are very student-based,” says Jennifer Vigne, president of the Education Foundation, “and if we can get students engaged in their own learning process, that’s a win.” Even the high schoolers get excited by a little science fiction on campus, with Shakespeare students tackling the phenomenon from a 16th-century perspective and an art class making 15 digital renderings of possible extraterrestrials. Building off the work of their colleagues, another class wrote stories about said aliens. “Students have the opportunity to embrace their learning and take it to the level that they are wanting,” continues Vigne. “It fosters their curiosity, and we want to embrace opportunities like that.”

And, so far, the immersion grants have been a success—anecdotally, at least. “The response and the feedback so far has been extraordinarily positive,” says Vigne, who hopes for more, similar projects in the future.

Pictured: Student scientists clamber over the intruding meteor in a quest for answers. Photo courtesy of Education Foundation of Sarasota County.

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