Wyoming K-12 Teachers Participate in Middle-Level Science Summer Classes at UW | News

June 29, 2022

In an appreciative nod to Jim Verley, a UW lecturer of physics and astronomy who sports a thick bushy gray mustache, the six middle school and high school teachers donned mustaches on their last day of their “Astronomy for Teachers” class. Pictured, clockwise from left, are Chad Fallin, Anna Johnston, John Beitler, Becki Butterfield, Dusty Toppenberg and Kristina Melin. The six teachers are either pursuing their master’s degrees in natural science or obtaining continuing education credits through middle-level science courses offered this summer through UW’s Science and Mathematics Teaching Center. (Jim Verley Photo)

From examining the constellations in the night sky to participating in a fossil dig in Kemmerer, six K-12 Wyoming middle and high school teachers have added to their science knowledge base courtesy of the University of Wyoming.

The teachers are either pursuing their master’s degrees in natural science or obtaining continuing education credits through middle-level science courses offered through UW’s Science and Mathematics Teaching Center (SMTC). To help meet that end, the teachers have immersed themselves in three weeks of Earth science curriculum this month. Working with UW faculty, the teachers are focused on astronomy, geology, geographic information systems and natural science.

“I am in my last summer of a three-summer program, and I am pursuing certification in teaching middle-level science. Currently, I am a high school biology teacher, and I am taking these courses to expand my teaching certification,” says Chad Fallin, a biology teacher and science department chair at Riverton High School. “All classes are required, and each summer earns eight credits toward a master’s degree or certification. While the program is titled ‘middle-level science,’ the science is rigorous. The part that is middle level is the specific focus on how to teach middle school students. The content and the teaching techniques are easily scaled up for high school students.” 

One of the courses in which the group participated was “Astronomy for Teachers,” taught by Jim Verley, a UW lecturer of physics and astronomy.

“We discussed many subjects within astronomy, from objects in space — stars, galaxies, constellations, solar systems, black holes and planets — and also connections between the Earth, sun and moon, which will apply directly to my middle school science classes on astronomy,” says Kristina Melin, a science teacher for grades 6-8 at Big Horn Middle School. “He (Verley) shared some websites with us that have kinesthetic activities to use with students to help them learn about concepts that are so big in scope compared to their world.”

“We really focused on scale and our own position in the universe,” adds Anna Johnston, a teacher at Eastside Elementary in Rock Springs. “I am still blown away at its vastness. Explaining this to students will be difficult, as it is such a difficult concept for them to grasp.”

Over the course of three weeks, Verley spent time on all eight planets and minor planets, moons, asteroids and comets, and the extent of our solar system. The class moved on to exploring the universe, including galaxies, stars, the birth and death of stars, and man’s relationship with the universe. The class ended with discussions about size, scale and time, subjects Verley admits aren’t always easy to understand and often create misconceptions.

“I want them to understand the special obligation they have as teachers,” Verley says. “I believe this group understands that completely and how to incorporate science in cross-disciplinary ways, working to make their students critical thinkers.

“Finally, I wanted them to not avoid or compromise on controversial subjects that will undoubtedly crop up in the schools,” Verley continues. “Evidence is the key and for science. You have as many or more failures as successes, which is another thing their students need to understand about science. Scientific argument is healthy with the caveat that you don’t make statements or take positions without evidence or data to support them.”

On the last day of class, the teachers showed their appreciation by donning play mustaches in a tribute to Verley’s bushy gray mustache.

“Thank you. You have rejuvenated my interest in teaching,” Verley said.

people with a huge telescope

Middle and high school Wyoming teachers — who are taking middle-level science courses this summer at UW — spend some time observing planets and stars through the 16-inch telescope in the hatch of the Star Observatory in the Physical Sciences Building. (Jim Verley Photo)

The Earth sciences rotation of courses is offered this summer and again in 2025. Besides Verley’s course, other classes are “Earth Science in a Global Context,” taught by James Amato, map editor and geospatial technical principal with the Wyoming State Geological Survey; “Nature Science Assessment,” taught by Ana Houseal, an associate professor and outreach science educator with the SMTC; and “Spatial Data Instruction Technology,” taught by Alan Buss, a professor and director of the UW School of Teacher Education.

The middle-level science courses are only offered during the summer. The courses, which run June 9-30, use interdisciplinary and relevant problems drawn from physical, life and Earth sciences to explore instructional strategies and research.

“This has been a great summer of learning, even for veteran teachers,” Melin says. “I have very much enjoyed the hands-on learning and direct connection to middle school Earth science that has been emphasized in our program, and I look forward to the next two summers as we dive into the life and physical sciences.”

“We discovered the best way to have students understand this is through pictures taken from various probes and telescopes,” Fallin adds. “His class made space, planetary motion and star formation easy to understand so I can create lessons for my students.” 

Other teachers taking the four summer courses are John Beitler, a science teacher at Rock Springs Junior High School; Becki Butterfield, a teacher at Coffeen Elementary School in Sheridan; and Dusty Toppenberg, a chemistry teacher at Douglas High School. Butterfield will be moving to Meadowlark Elementary in Sheridan this fall.

The group participated in a fossil dig in Kemmerer June 23-24, with Amato, Buss and Houseal leading the field activity.

About the Science and Mathematics Teaching Center

The SMTC is devoted to excellence in preK-20 science and mathematics teaching and learning. Functioning as an interdisciplinary collaboration in the Office of Academic Affairs under the Graduate Education Interdisciplinary Degree Program, the SMTC facilitates professional development that supports educators in Wyoming and across the United States.

The SMTC facilitates collaboration between UW faculty and K-12 educators; serves as a resource center for teachers; conducts research; provides professional development and outreach services; and offers three master’s degree programs.

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