This summer, local elementary teachers will have an opportunity to help shape the future of science education across Virginia. 

Running through July 25, more than two dozen area elementary teachers will gather on the Virginia Tech campus to participate in a four-week professional development institute designed to shift science instruction from the traditional teacher-led, lecture-driven classroom to a hands-on, problem-based learning environment.

Since 2011 the Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement has conducted Elementary Science Institutes, which are held at four sites across the state, to encourage students and teachers to work as scientific investigators and use innovative, critical thinking to help solve society’s most complex issues.

Virginia Tech professor of Education and co-principal investigator Sue Magliaro, who is also director of VTSTEM, affirms the high quality of this intensive professional development and outreach experience. 

“The students, teachers, returning participants, coaches, principals, and science coordinators all have a role in this month-long event," said Magliaro. "This systemic approach to advancing high quality science instruction and learning is a model for the 21st century.”

The institutes begin by teaching educators how to present a specific problem to students and by developing a scenario to engage students in a process to solve it.

The institutes also include a two-week embedded camp for students with high needs from local schools. The camp allows the VISTA-trained teachers to experience working with real students on timely and engaging issues such as how to create a more energy independent Virginia, build a rocket, or clean up a local river. This year, teachers and students will explore marine ecosystems during the summer camp.

Local participants include teachers from the following area schools who will attend the Elementary Science Institute and camp at Virginia Tech:

  • Albert Harris Elementary in Martinsville;
  • Belle Heath Elementary in Radford;
  • Bonsack Elementary / W.E. Cundiff Elementary in Roanoke County;
  • Dearington Elementary in Lynchburg;
  • Laurel Elementary / St. Pauls Elementary in Carroll County;
  • Mountain View Elementary  in Rockbridge County;
  • Narrows Elementary / Middle in Giles County;
  • Oak Point Elementary in Smyth County; and
  • Windy Gap / Dudley Elementary in Franklin County.

Local campers will hail from Belview Elementary School, Prices Fork Elementary School, and Eastern Montgomery Elementary Schools in Montgomery County, and Narrows Elementary / Middle School and Eastern Elementary / Middle School in Giles County.

The institutes have already served more than 250 teachers in total. This summer, they will host over 130 teachers. 

In addition to the Virginia Tech campus, the summer institutes occur at George Mason University, the College of William & Mary, and Virginia Commonwealth University. VISTA exists as a collaboration between the aforementioned schools, as well as the University of Virginia and James Madison University. 

Oregon State University directs the independent evaluation of the VISTA program.  

In addition to the Elementary Science Institutes, VISTA provides other K-12 science professional development activities, including its two Secondary Teacher Program teaching methods courses, the New Science Coordinator Academy, and the Science Education Faculty Academy. 

VISTA, which was recently included in the Change the Equation national STEMworks database, also offers ongoing support to its participant teachers via its coaching program.

So far, VISTA participants have influenced more than 625,000 K-12 students statewide. Over 350 teachers from more than 125 schools representing 80+ Virginia school districts have received VISTA’s professional development.

VISTA is funded by a five-year, $34 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education through the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, which includes a $5.7 million private sector matching requirement.