Andi Hildenbrand, PLI Graduate

The BEARS Cave

As a former high school science teacher and a graduate of the Northeast Mississippi 2009 Parent Leadership Institute, Andi Hildenbrand was disappointed in her school’s standardized test scores in science. Only 40% of Lawndale’s students scored Proficient or Advanced on the 2008-2009 fifth grade Science assessment. Andi decided to make a difference at her child’s school by marshaling resources and recruiting other parents to expose third through fifth graders at Lawndale Elementary to hands-on science experiments. She set out to establish the BEARS (Be Explorers in the Art of Revealing Science) Cave at the school.

She first sought the support of her school’s Principal, Dr. Terry Harbin, who wholeheartedly backed Andi’s idea to transform a classroom into a functioning science lab. He persuaded the school’s PTO to dedicate its fundraising efforts to the science lab; Andi offered to chair the event. At the 2010 “WinterFest”, families visited classrooms with hands-on experiments, nighttime stargazing offered by personnel from a nearby observatory, and a taxidermy exhibit with bears, bobcats, and elk. Parents donated over $900 to sponsor microscopes. The total fundraising effort netted over $5600 for the lab. The community responded to the effort in a big way as well: local physicians donated lab coats for students to use, parents volunteered to help set up and decorate the lab, a paint store donated paint for the lab, and the school system provided materials and an artist to create a mural of a bear’s den on one wall of the BEARS Cave. Andi next partnered with the school’s teachers to submit a grant to a local group, the Association for Excellence in Education, which awarded Lawndale $7,000 toward the lab.

In the Fall of 2010, the BEARS Cave was open for business. Andi met with Lawndale teachers on a regular basis to learn what each grade was studying. She reviewed the applicable Mississippi fifth grade science curriculum and prepared lessons and hands-on experiments, tailoring a fifth grade lesson plan and experiment for all three grade levels. She brought in three other parents, all of whom were former classroom teachers, and together they developed a schedule for teaching the lessons: third and fourth graders visit the lab monthly for a one hour lesson while fifth graders visit the lab twice a month for more in-depth lessons. Additional parent volunteers assist in the lab. All students are accompanied to the lab by their classroom teacher or an assistant but a member of the parent team leads each lesson. Many of the classroom teachers who attend the parent-led lessons assist their students there and later continue, expand on, and test what the students learned in the BEARS Cave. These teachers are gaining confidence in their own understanding of science.

Since the lab opened, Lawndale students have studied everything from weather, animal habitats, and states of matter, to human anatomy and forms of energy. They wear lab coats as they enter the BEARS Cave and they work at real lab tables as they dissect frogs and/or owl pellets together. Clearly, the lab visits are enjoyed by the teachers, the students, and by the parents who willingly serve as teachers and volunteers. Although the 2010-2011 Science scores have not yet been released, the percentage of Lawndale students who scored Proficient or Advanced in Language Arts and Math increased in all three grades from the previous year’s Mississippi Curriculum Test 2 (MCT2).

Andi’s next goal is to persuade the school district to furnish science labs at the other upper elementary schools so all third through fifth graders will have the same opportunity for hands-on learning.

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