The future just got even brighter for Northside Elementary School students as the Duke Energy Foundation presented Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) with a $40,000 grant to fund a new Inquiry and Nature-Based STEM Program. The presentation took place in the garden of Northside Elementary School, which will pilot the program with their third, fourth and fifth graders next year.
Funds will go towards training teachers to implement a combination of inquiry-based learning and sustainability to the classroom. CHCCS teachers will work with the Institute for the Environment at UNC to design a curriculum that aligns with the program’s values and meets the College and Career Readiness Standards.
The measurable goal over the next five years will be to decrease the achievement gap in the district and cut non-proficiency on the Grade 5 Science Test in half. CHCCS sustainability program director Dan Schnitzer explained that the direct aim of inquiry-based learning is to encourage curiosity and questions.
“Teachers will provide students with context. What will come from the students is questions that they have about what they want to learn and what they want to do," Schnitzer said. "It works with the natural learning method that children exist in. Instead of going against that grain, we’re going to work with it.”
Schnitzer collaborated with the Chapel Hill Carrboro Public School Foundation and its executive director Lynn Lehmann to write the grant. The program will promote participation in immersive learning experiences that will be tailored to deepen students’ interests and connect them to their community outside of school.
“The level of excitement is going to come in exploration of their grounds and to be able to easily access nature and what they have, " Schnitzer said. "Hopefully this is a springboard to larger and more impactful connections between our students and their environment."
After receiving support from Duke Energy in multiple districts, Superintendent Pamela Baldwin believes that this partnership will be incredibly beneficial for elementary school students.
“I’m a science teacher, so to me exploration and inquiry is the best way for students to learn, and it doesn’t have to be applied solely to science classes," Baldwin said. "Exposing students to real life opportunities is the way we should operate these days, especially since we don’t know the kinds of new careers that will be available in the next 20 years.”
The idea comes from studies proving real world and hands-on learning activities are critical for the achievement of students from economically disadvantaged households and students of color. With the Inquiry and Nature-Based STEM Program, CHCCS and Duke Energy are also aiming to decrease the gender disparity that occurs in science-related fields.
“We’re really focused on grants that benefit girls and get them engaged in the sciences. We want them to know that they can," said Indira Everett, district manager at Duke Energy Corporation.
If the program is successful in achieving its goals at Northside Elementary, CHCCS plans to extend it to more schools in the district and make it accessible to all grade levels.
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