Science teachers gather at Wheaton Warrenville South to learn modeling method
Phil Culcasi's high school physics notebook is filled with page after page of observations.
The notebook dates to the early 1990s, when he was a student of James Stankevitz, a longtime Wheaton Warrenville South High School teacher who Culcasi now calls a co-worker.
"I was a very traditional teacher back then," Stankevitz said. "I really underestimated what I thought kids could do.
"I remember thinking, 'Well, I better show them how to do this, they'll never figure it out,' and now they figure it out. It may take them a while, they may hit some dead ends, but they will do it. They don't necessarily need me to be the dispenser of all that information."
The way students are figuring it out is through something called the modeling method.
This month, roughly 100 teachers from across the U.S. and several other countries have gathered at Wheaton Warrenville South for a two-week workshop to learn more about the method and how they can introduce it in their classrooms.
Stankevitz said modeling goes beyond lecturing kids and making them take notes and memorize equations. It involves placing them in groups to work together to understand a scientific principle. It involves a lot of trial and error, a lot of drawings on a whiteboard and a mix of graphs, words, diagrams and equations. It involves standing in front of their classmates, presenting their theories and letting the teacher and their classmates ask questions.
The teacher is there to help, but not to provide the answer.
Wheaton Warrenville South junior Jorie Budzikowski said it was a big change from the teaching methods she remembers in middle school.
"In middle school we were just kind of given all the equations and lectured about how to solve the problems. Now it's go solve with your group, figure out the equations through a lab and then we'll do a big class discussion," she said. "It's kind of more figuring it out by ourselves, rather than just being told what to do."
Culcasi, who now teaches chemistry and serves as the science department chairman at the school, said one example of a way a teacher could use the modeling method would be to introduce students to experiments and discussions related to Boyle's law, but without ever saying the words Boyle's law.
In the past, a teacher may have stood at the front of the class and lectured about Boyle's law, having the students write the name in their notebooks, along with rules and formulas related to it.
The modeling method gives the students an opportunity to put the law into effect and then requires them to explain what is happening, and why, orally, through drawings and in writing.
"Make the kids explain their explanation," Culcasi said to the teachers. "You need them to verbalize it."
Stankevitz started using the method in 1995, when there were only two workshops nationwide being held each year to train people in modeling. Now there are more than 60 workshops and about 2,200 members in the American Modeling Teachers Association.
"It's a growing trend," Stankevitz said. "We expanded from physics to chemistry, biology, earth and space sciences, middle school science."
Teachers participating in this year's workshop at Wheaton Warrenville South are taking on the role of students during the training to understand what it's like to be a student in a modeling instruction classroom.
"They are going through the same lab activities and work sheet problems and present to their colleagues their results just as our students do," Stankevitz said. "They see not only the content from a different point of view, but then the process of developing these models."
The teachers also had a chance to hear from a panel of 10 students who have been taught with the modeling method. They all said while modeling can be frustrating at times, they enjoy the freedom they're given in class.
"With labs, rather than giving us a certain procedure that we have to follow, we're given what we need to solve for and then we have to determine what materials and what process we're going to use to solve it," Budzikowski said. "Granted, we get it wrong a lot of times because we're given so much freedom, but a lot of the times it will help us remember it better because we're doing it ourselves, rather than being told how to do it."
Stankevitz agreed that the biggest benefit of using the modeling method is the increased depth of understanding he sees in his students.
"They don't forget it," he said. "We are mirroring the scientific process of how do you know when data is reliable? How do you know when an argument somebody makes is scientifically correct? And if it isn't then how do you question them and their technique?"