Fort Mill Times

SCIENCE MADE FUN: Minka Taylor's class

Calvin Blaschke and classmates Jessica Zahn (center) and Taylor Rossi chart elements such as nitrogen and hydrogen during a hands-on science class project last week at Gold Hill Middle School.
Calvin Blaschke and classmates Jessica Zahn (center) and Taylor Rossi chart elements such as nitrogen and hydrogen during a hands-on science class project last week at Gold Hill Middle School.

Kyle Brooks grabbed an eraser and neon marker. Nearby, Luke Johnson fingered a portable, white mini board.

But the Gold Hill Middle School students weren't drawing.

They were learning science.

"We're trying to figure out what happens when you combine nitrogen and phosphorus together," said Luke Johnson, 12.

In Dominica "Minka" Taylor's class on this day, there is no lecture. Instead, teaching and learning involve hands-on play with markers, boards, periodic tables and mock elements such as nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen.

The task: Pair an element with another element - or two or three - that it bonds with.

"I've been giving them symbols," Taylor said of previous class instructions. "Now, I need to know that they understand how to find what bonds with another element."

Comprehension in Taylor's class doesn't come from extensive lectures and books. Instead Taylor, an 18-year veteran science teacher and Gold Hill Middle's Teacher of The Year, employs nontraditional learning to reach her students. But science was different when Taylor was in school.

"It was straight-up lectures," she said. "You read the books and answered questions. They was no hands on experiences or excitement. You sat in a desk. You didn't get up. You were just there. There was no fun. There was nothing that made it memorable."

But that's not the case in Taylor's science class, where students work in pairs or groups on class projects designed to reinforced specific science-related concepts - a move that stops memorizing answers and paves the way for comprehension.

"It helps me learn instead of just listening to what she says," Olivia Dewey, 13, said.

Then learning time turned into show and tell.

"At each station, there are two or three elements," Taylor told her class of 23 about square-shaped cards that represented an element such as nitrogen or oxygen. "One of you is going to go to a station, get one element and bring it back to the table.

"Draw the symbol, and write the name of the symbol," she added. "Talk in your groups, and figure out what it can bond with."

But, there was one challenge.

"You're not using your composition books," she said. "No notebooks. Just memory."

The hands-on approach is more than just a learning mechanism in Taylor's class.

"It's another type of assessment other than a pen and paper test," she said of the students writing symbols on their mini white boards.

And in the process, students stay engaged, she said.

"I'm an ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) queen," Taylor said. "You have to keep my attention and keep me busy or you've already lost me."

The same is true of her students, she said.

"I know exactly what my students are going through, so I try my hardest to keep their attention," Taylor said. "Otherwise, they're thinking about what they're having for lunch or what they're going to do after school."

When Taylor debuted as a science teacher, she tried lecturing and book learning. But it didn't work. Some students failed to grasp mundane lessons while others daydreamed, effectively tuning Taylor out. Still, others learned concepts just for the moment.

"Too many students were memorizing facts to pass a test and then after a test they couldn't remember any of the information or they didn't have any situations to attach it to," she said.

So, Taylor stepped up her game. The byproduct, years later, is commanding attention from her science students.

"Science last year was difficult," William Hughes, 13, said. "There was a lot of reading out of textbooks. I like it better this year. This year is more hands on."

A table away, Jessica Zahn, 12, partnered with Taylor Rossi and Calvin Blaschke.

"When I do hands-on, I learn better than having to do it from the book," Jessica Zahn said before turning her attention to a nitrogen element.

"We're going to get three hydrogens to make the nitrogen stable," Calvin Blaschke said.

Then the group on their mini board charted ammonia.

"When they (elements) bond, that's when they become stable," Jessica Zahn said.

But the lesson was more than just learning the how-to of element bonding. Class also was about reaching students.

"Sometimes, the book is a little confusing," Calvin Blaschke said. "She (Taylor) puts it in our terms."

Jessica Zahn added, "We get to go up to the smart board and do formulas and try to figure it out ourselves whereas in other classes the teachers do it."

And that sometimes leads to daydreaming.

"I tend to get bored and lose focus if she were lecturing," 13-year-old Taylor Rossi said.

Across the room, Kyle Brooks and Luke Johnson grabbed an element.

"It helps to see what actually happens when you combine two elements," Luke Johnson said.

The team picked oxygen and sulfur. The end result: Sulfur oxide.

A pleased Taylor looked on as she stopped by each pair or group to check their mini boards.

"We do more activities as a class," said Katie Gano, 13. "It's easier to understand when we draw it out."

Gano and Mitch Russell worked to see what would happened when bonding phosphorus, oxygen and hydrogen.

"It can bond, but we're not sure if it's a multiple bond," Russell said.

Then Taylor checked their work.

"It was right, but we didn't write out the whole formula," said Gano, who cleared her mini board to work on bonding another element.

"Hey guys, for your challenge, I'd like you to do sugar," Taylor said.

That's six carbon atoms, 12 atoms of hydrogen and six atoms of oxygen, Gloria Futhey said.

"It makes simple sugar," Futhey said.

That combination of elements is one she learned through reading her science book, but the combination stuck in her memory when she charted it on her mini board, she said.

"Doing it over and seeing how the atoms bond, made understanding it come together," she said.

And that's how learning should be, Taylor said.

"For students to be able to own a concept, they have to experience it by doing hands on activities or relating it to real life experiences," she said.

That's why early on in her career Taylor changed her teaching style. Instead of lecturing that plants make their food through a process called photosynthesis, students grew plants, some without sunlight -- a key factor in photosynthesis. Some plants did not receive water.

"They learned the concept," Taylor said. "They knew that plants needed water because we demonstrated it. They knew all those things were needed because of the investigations that they did in class."

More recently, Taylor's class worked with periodic tables that identify elements.

"So they could understand how the process of photosynthesis -- -how water and carbon dioxide with the help of energy from the sun combine -- produce the sugar that's the plant's food and oxygen that goes back into the atmosphere," Taylor said.

And doing the lesson as opposed to hearing it brings the point home, Jamie Huffman said.

"We get to learn hands on instead of her telling us the information," she said. "We get to participate."