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Laramie Teachers Hone STEM Skills at UW

July 14, 2015
woman and man working beneath a telescope at observatory
Andrea Hayden, left, fourth-grade teacher at Laramie’s Spring Creek Elementary School, watches as University of Wyoming astronomy graduate student Will Chick works on the telescope at the Wyoming Infrared Observatory on Jelm Mountain. Visits to the observatory were part of the Launching Astronomy: Standards and STEM Integration program at UW. (UW Photo)

Four teachers from Laramie are among nearly two dozen educators who will return to their classrooms this fall with new skills and ideas to stimulate young people’s interest in science, after spending two weeks this summer working with astronomy and education experts at the University of Wyoming.

Beitel Elementary School teachers Lisa Johnson, Mary Flynn and Sarah Turner, along with Spring Creek Elementary School teacher Andrea Hayden, were on the UW campus as part of something called Launching Astronomy: Standards and STEM Integration (LASSI). It’s one of several UW programs aimed at helping K-12 educators improve their instruction in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“This is an opportunity to increase my content knowledge and gain new ideas to make the content more accessible to my students,” says Hayden, who teaches fourth grade. “It’s also a way to connect with people who really know their stuff and stay at the forefront of what scientists are studying now.”

“This experience will help my knowledge base so I can bring it back to the classroom,” says Turner, who teaches second grade. “If we have a passion for teaching science, the students will have a passion for learning it.”

Taught by faculty members in UW’s Department of Physics and Astronomy and the College of Education, the LASSI participants learned about planets, stars, quasars, light spectra, gravity and galaxies -- and how to teach those topics to students from kindergarten through high school. The teachers built telescopes called Galileoscopes, visited UW’s Wyoming Infrared Observatory on Jelm Mountain, participated in research projects, and developed lesson plans to use in their classrooms in the coming school year and beyond.

“A program like LASSI makes something that’s non-attainable, attainable for K-12 teachers,” says Andrea Burrows, UW assistant professor of secondary science education who runs LASSI. “If you had asked any of them three weeks ago if they could explain spectra of stars or quasars, they would have said ‘no.’ If you had asked them if they could use the moons of Jupiter to figure out the density of Jupiter, they would have said ‘no.’ It’s not that the resources aren’t out there, but I think sometimes teachers aren’t sure of where to go to start asking questions. Because we have the experts here, we’re fortunate that we’re able to ask the right questions and help them see how to use that in the classroom.”

In addition to developing specific plans for hands-on astronomy projects in their classrooms, the LASSI participants say they benefited from their interactions with fellow educators around the state -- and beyond. Three of the teachers were from New Hampshire, recruited to the UW program by Ryan Hickox, professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.

K-12 educators around the country are adjusting to new science standards that raise the bar on what is expected of students in STEM areas, including astronomy and physics. The LASSI experience allows the participants to exchange ideas on how to help their students meet those standards through hands-on learning in real-world scenarios. A website with LASSI information and the teachers' lesson plans can be found at

Johnson, who teaches first grade, says she now has the information to answer a basic question asked by many first-graders: “Why is the sky blue?” By learning about the light spectrum in LASSI, she understands it’s because molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than they scatter red light.

“It’s nice to know we have all of these resources, and can use them, right outside our back door,” Johnson says of the UW experts.

Flynn, who worked as a special education aide last year, says she’ll be able to use practical scenarios -- such as the difference in noises made by a fire truck based upon whether it’s approaching or leaving -- to teach about the Doppler effect, for example.

LASSI is funded through a National Science Foundation (NSF) Mathematics and Science Partnership grant awarded by the Wyoming Department of Education to Burrows. Additional aspects of the program were funded by an NSF astronomy grant awarded jointly to UW's Adam Myers, Department of Physics and Astronomy assistant professor, and Hickox of Dartmouth College. A range of consultants and graduate assistants from an outside company, and UW's secondary education and physics and astronomy departments, helped provide expert guidance along with the faculty organizers.

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