Immersive Learning Lands in Venice

Guest Correspondence

When students from Venice Elementary School and adjacent Venice High School returned from spring break this past Monday, they discovered a rock-like object, resembling a meteor, had skidded across the lawn and made landfall on their campus. As part of a coordinated simulation, University of South Florida professors and graduate students dressed as NASA scientists in contamination suits, quarantined the meteor with caution tape and began processing the site utilizing apparent sterilizing techniques, outward observation procedures, and collecting scientific data.

Throughout the week students investigated the site to help analyze samples and propose solutions. It was a wonderful sight to see elementary-aged students fully engaged with clipboards in hand while asking the scientists such inquisitive questions. One young student suggested the security cameras be reviewed for video evidence while another felt his sighting of a shooting star the night before could be related.

As recipients of a schoolwide immersion grant from the Education Foundation of Sarasota County with funding provided by the Dart Foundation and created in coordination with USF professors, students from both schools experienced a science-based inquiry project allowing for unique cross-curricula and interdisciplinary opportunities. The Education Foundation also provided professional development on inquiry-based instruction to select staff at both schools to encourage innovative pedagogical practices in K–12 learning environments. These active learning experiences focus on guiding students’ curiosity toward testable questions, quantifiable inquiries, plausible hypotheses, observations and inferences, helping the students develop accurate scientific habits of mind.

The collaboration between the two schools has provided a unique opportunity for students of all ages. Beth Donofrio, Venice High School’s teacher of the year, took a creative approach to incorporating the meteor landing into her classroom instruction on Shakespeare. Donofrio’s class investigated the meteor landing as if they were in Shakespearean times—using only the knowledge and scientific tools available in the 16th century. She asked students to critically consider how Shakespeare and the Globe actors would have viewed this event—would they believe the cause was scientific, fate or God? She probed students to consider allusions to the stars and the heavens in Shakespeare’s work, which has resulted in a number of lively classroom discussions.

The meteor landing was the second immersive grant piloted by the Education Foundation this year with the first held at Booker Middle School with funding provided by United Way Suncoast. Through a simulated city that experienced an outbreak and using more than 30 career professionals who joined students and teachers to share their career paths, middle school students were exposed to real-life scenarios and various jobs using a socio-cultural approach while also learning how to respond to a harmless city contagion.

It is projects like these that the Education Foundation will continue to expand upon because students are at the center of learning. Immersive grants are inquiry-based learning projects that call on students to actively make observations; collect, analyze and synthesize information, and draw conclusions—all of which develops useful problem-solving skills. Inquiry-based learning promotes student engagement, develops meaningful research skills, heightens curiosity and fortifies the importance of asking good questions. Beyond developing these vital skills, it also fosters a lifelong love of learning.

We look forward to expanding upon these projects and want to give a special shout-out to USF professors Dr. Dana Zeidler and Dr. Mitch Ruzek for piloting these learning opportunities with us.

Jennifer Vigne is president of the Education Foundation of Sarasota County.

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