Grants help teachers reach ‘tech generation’

Published October/November 2011 Voice

Jo-Ann Semko knows first-hand that the best way to engage children in learning is by providing a “hands-on-minds-on” curriculum that challenges students to participate in their own education. 

Now, thanks to a $500,000 grant, Semko and her 25 colleagues at Central Cambria Elementary School will get intense professional development over a five-year period that will enable them to capture the attention of pupils in the “tech generation.’’ The money is to be used to create a national model. Forty-nine schools in Pennsylvania were elected for the program, with a total of 450 teachers statewide.

The grant is provided through Achieving Student Success Through Excellence in Teaching (ASSET Inc.), which obtained $26 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Education.  ASSET’s Investing in Innovation i3 Grant initiative is aimed at increasing teacher effectiveness and student achievement. According to ASSET, the program will give teachers access to the higher-level professional development necessary to change classroom practice, enhance student learning, and ultimately impact science, technology, engineering, and math education (STEM). 

Semko said the advanced professional development and classroom materials will move classrooms from a teacher-centered environment to a student-centered environment.

“The idea is to engage the students in learning about science,’’ said Semko, who is president of Central Cambria EA in the Central-Western Region. “We will bring in real-life creatures to study so it is hands-on. I have been teaching for 31 years and my style has always been inquiry-based so that I am facilitating rather than just lecturing.

“Children learn by doing and this initiative capitalizes on this by bringing in a new discovery learning process that gives them a hands-on approach to math and science,’’ she added. “Our children and the world around us demand that we change our methods or we run the risk of losing the children to the same old, same old. They need to feel safe in their experimentation and know that the sky is the limit when the imagination and science come together.”

For example, students will experiment with real rocks and minerals rather than just read about them in a book, and another class will study the development of African dwarf frogs. Others will delve into the world of ideas and inventions such as instruments, techniques, and chromatography.

“This is an opportunity to make strides in advancing teaching techniques,’’ said Luke Lansberry, Central Cambria Elementary School principal. “We live in a society where technology is taking over all aspects of our lives. Children have been groomed on TV, video, iPods, cell phones, etc. from a very young age on up. Kids are used to interactive learning, not lecture-based learning. It is because of this interactive learning that changes must be made to the curriculum.”

The program will start with the science curriculum and then be blended into other subjects. During the next five years, teachers at Central Cambria Elementary will spend time with college educators and the program’s developers learning about the program and how to implement it in the classroom.    

Semko said CCEA was very involved in helping the district win the grant. Vince DiLeo, superintendent of the Central Cambria School District, noted that because the program requires an additional nine days of professional development, the CCEA and the district cooperatively and quickly reached agreements to ensure that the teachers were provided personal days as compensation for their time. All EA members in the building were supportive of the project and willing to go to professional development in the summer to get the training.

The grant will provide approximately $22,000 of professional development and resources to each teacher in the project.

“This is an excellent example of a school district and the local teachers’ union working together to provide what is best for the students,’’ Semko said. “I am very proud of the CCEA. Every one of our members in the building signed on to the program and that will require a real commitment during the next five years.” 




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