SOE News

Science education initiative at Peck Elementary exemplifies School of Education’s work with schools

Chancellor James Moeser visited the Clara J. Peck Elementary School in Greensboro, N.C., to observe ongoing collaborative work between the University and the elementary school and to explore future possibilities. The collaboration at Peck, featuring the work of Clinical Assistant Professor Cheryl Horton, typifies the work that many School of Education faculty do across the state as they connect with teachers and administrators, learn about the needs of schools, offer resources and exchange knowledge.

Peck Elementary’s relationship with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill began in 2003 when Principal Francine Mallory learned of the Carolina Covenant, a college financing commitment between UNC-Chapel Hill and historically low-income youth. She contacted the Carolina Covenant office and asked how her school, which enrolls 350 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, could become involved.

“Even though my students are young, I want to start building their aspirations for college,” Mallory said.

Peck’s diverse student body is 58 percent African American, 16 percent Hispanic, 8 percent multi-racial, 6 percent Asian and 3 percent American Indian.  The remaining 9 percent of the student population is Caucasian. More than 85 percent of Peck students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches due to their parents’ financial status.  

The following spring when the schedule was set for the annual UNC-Chapel Hill bus tour that takes new faculty across North Carolina, it included a stop at Peck Elementary.

“When we visited Peck, each faculty member had a student guide,” said Thomas James, newly arrived dean of the School of Education, who participated in the University bus tour that spring. “Our student guides showed us the school and the work they were doing. Then we gathered and talked with the principal.”

A few weeks later when bus tour participants met to discuss their experiences, the Carolina Center for Public Service offered a small grant for the group to provide service to some organization they had visited.

“The whole group had been so moved by the visit to Peck Elementary that we decided to adopt it as a place to offer service,” James explained.

Conversations with the Peck teachers revealed that many of them were uncomfortable with teaching particular science concepts. James identified Cheryl Horton, clinical assistant professor of science education in the School of Education, as someone who could be a resource.

“I was excited when Dean James approached me about this opportunity,” Horton said. “Becoming involved in the schools and assisting teachers with their professional development is something I have great interest in doing.”

The lead teachers for the third, fourth and fifth grades identified science topics on which they wanted Horton to teach hands-on lessons while they observed and interacted with the students. Over the next two years, Horton taught a dozen lessons using an inquiry-based approach ─ by asking critical thinking questions, using hands-on activities and allowing students to discover knowledge for themselves. “I wanted to help them understand the concepts through application,” she said.

The experience allowed her both to impart and to gain knowledge. Among other concepts, she taught fourth graders about electricity by building circuits from wire, light bulbs and batteries. They also learned about magnetism by observing magnets bouncing up and down as they repelled each other.

Fifth graders used sandpaper, wooden blocks, carpet and pencils to discover the effects of friction on various surfaces. They learned about force by bouncing many kinds of balls, measuring the height of the bounce and recording the results in a data chart. They studied weather and climate by building terrariums and making anemometers to measure the wind.

Third graders learned about the formation of big and small craters in the moon by dropping marbles into pans of flour and observing the results.

“In these and other lessons, every student was engaged and eager to learn,” Horton commented. “They expected something wonderful with each activity. I was happy to see that the girls as well as the boys were so interested in science.”

Even the special needs students and Limited English Proficiency students were able to accomplish the tasks, Horton noted. “According to the teachers, some students were very engaged in classroom activities for the first time,” she said. “The hands-on activities reached students with many different learning styles and a variety of language proficiency levels.”

This year, Principal Mallory wrote and received a grant to purchase science supplies so that the Peck teachers can continue teaching the hands-on science activities. 

“Having a college professor teach in our classrooms has been such an outstanding learning experience for my teachers and students,” Mallory said. “Also it’s a way of impacting the training of future teachers. Teaching in a public school like ours has put Cheryl back in touch with the realities of the classroom. She can take what she has experienced back to her own students.”

The School of Education has benefited from the collaboration. “As a school, we want to learn from this experience so that we can do more sustained outreach across the state,” Dean James said.

At the conclusion of the March 29 visit, Chancellor Moeser reflected on the work of the Peck principal and teachers to create opportunities for their students, including their collaborations with the School of Education faculty and the Carolina Covenant staff.

“You are providing opportunities for these children that they would not otherwise have,” Moeser said. “These children don’t have these dreams unless you plant the seeds and nurture them. There are enormous hurdles but you are setting a higher bar and helping the children achieve those goals.”

“Some of these are 10-talent children,” Moeser continued. “Some are five-talent and some are one-talent. But talent has nothing to do with economic or social status. These children are wealthy with potential. The greatest injustice is failure to develop potential.”