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New Challenge Asks Teachers to Create Out-of-School Math, Science Projects

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Teachers who come up with unique ways for students to learn about science and math outside of school now have the opportunity to receive funding for their projects and a $5,000 reward for their ingenuity.

This is part of the Science Everywhere initiative sponsored by the Overdeck Family Foundation and the Simons Foundation in partnership with DonorsChoose.org.

Through the program, teachers are encouraged to submit math and science projects through the Donors Choose platform that students would do outside of the classroom. The foundations are putting up nearly $500,000  to match every donation. The hope is that between their donations and the public's nearly $1 million worth of science and math supplies will be donated. Once the Science Everywhere Innovation Challenge ends, the five teachers with the best ideas will receive $5,000 each. A panel of six teachers led by astronaut Leland Melvin will help determine the winners.

"Most of us learn best by doing, and this is the idea behind Science Everywhere," said Marilyn Simons, the president of the Simons Foundation, in a news release. "We are asking teachers to come up with hands-on math and science projects that will challenge students to creatively problem-solve and develop their critical thinking skills."

The board chairwoman of the Overdeck Family Foundation, Laura Overdeck, said the projects that come from this initiative also have the potential to make science and math less intimidating for parents and to show them how relevant the subjects are to their children's lives even at the elementary level.

"In a lot of cases, they think math and science are very elite subjects, only for certain kids to do, kids who have a natural aptitude," said Overdeck. "What we really want to show is that it's science everywhere and for everyone, that anybody can learn math and science just like anybody can learn how to read and anyone can enjoy it. Just like we have reading for pleasure, we want to have math and science for pleasure, too."

Why Focus on Out-of-School Time?

Overdeck said historically Donors Choose has focused on projects that take place inside the classroom, so this is a bit of a departure for the nonprofit, but she hopes that encouraging students to learn about math and science outside of class will spark new ways of thinking about the subjects.

"When kids are outside the classroom, there's immediately a level of relaxation and playfulness that can happen and more of a feeling of exploring rather than sticking to a curriculum where certain things must be learned and the boxes have to be checked off by a certain day," said Overdeck. "There's just a freedom in learning outside the classroom that's really very exciting."

For her, it's about students seeing how math and science can benefit them outside of just preparing for a test.

"Kids think of those as subjects you do during the day, the bell rings, you leave the building, you stop thinking about it," said Overdeck. "The problem is particularly the way our economy is going that could not be farther from the truth. Once those kids grow up, the jobs of the future are going to rely heavily on the kinds of skills you develop doing rigorous math and science, so we really want to expose kids to that."

Emphasis on Hands-On Learning

So which projects have the best shot at winning one of the $5,000 prizes? The full list of requirements can be found here, but basically the judges want to see goal-oriented, creative math and science projects that take place outside of class and can be easily replicated.

"A lot of work in the classroom is on worksheets, and that's just an unfortunate reality of running public schools for everybody," said Overdeck. "Worksheets are scalable. This is an opportunity to break out of that and really use manipulatives, things that are dirty, slimy, and smelly. The more hands-on it is, the more engaging it will be."

Cary Sneider is a member of the National Assessment Governing Board and an associate research professor at Portland State University where he teaches courses in research methodology. He is not involved with this initiative, but he is a big supporter of students engaging in hands-on math and science activities outside of the classroom.

"It's not so important what students know as what they can do with what they know," said Sneider. "Even in mathematics, for example, being able to solve a certain problem isn't as important as being able to know when to bring that skill to bear on a specific problem, what type of operation you need, what the unknown is, what we need to understand in that situation."

Projects must be submitted by March 24, and winners will be announced on September 5.

Projects funded through Science Everywhere will also be a part of a research study by University of Virginia professor Robert Tai to determine the impact of out-of-school learning on student engagement and success.


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