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Math, Science Teachers to Get a Taste of Sitka

By Tom Hesse, Associated Press | Posted - Sep. 3, 2015 at 10:51 a.m.



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SITKA, Alaska (AP) — The tourist season is ending, but another wave of visitors is coming this fall.

They will be educators from throughout the state who will be here for the 2015 Alaska Math and Science Conference.

Lyle Sparrowgrove, who taught math in Sitka schools for many years and is now Sitka High principal, said it will be a great occasion to focus on the state of math and science education in Alaska, but there's another reason he and other local teachers got together to bring the annual conference to Sitka for the first time.

"The other piece is just to showcase Sitka," Sparrowgrove said. "There's a fair number of people that have never been in Southeast, and then there's a fair number of people who have never been in Sitka."

The conference may bring up to 300 people to town, and is timed to fall squarely between Sitka's other autumn celebrations, Alaska Day and WhaleFest.

That was intentional, Sparrowgrove said.

"With Alaska Day and with WhaleFest we figured some places might be open that normally wouldn't be," he said.

The conference, Oct. 23-25, is looking for volunteers to run assistance desks and coordinate events, and local businesses to help sponsor activities. Attendees will take math and science-centric trips to places like Blue Lake Dam and Silver Bay Seafoods, and go on whale watching tours in Sitka Sound.

The theme of the conference, Navigating the Tides of Change, takes on a Southeast flavor while at the same time addressing some very significant changes happening in math and science education.

New teacher evaluations, Common Core Standards, Alaska State Standards, the potential for Next Generation Science Standards, and recent pushes toward math and science education have teachers at something of a crossroads.

Rebecca Himschoot teaches science at Keet Gooshi Heen and she said teachers are used to adjustments but this recent step is "changing the playing field."

"We have changes all the time and we have new directions all the time - new curricula and that kind of thing - but I think right now it's the volume of changes - there's a lot of them and they're across the board - so it does feel like a sea change, no pun intended," Himschoot said.

The various state and federal mandates on education can feel like a flood of buzzwords and education terms to both parents and teachers alike, Himschoot said.

"We've got so much on our plate right now that it's not even funny. I would have to call it evolution because there are really great things coming but it's a lot for us to adjust to and a lot for teachers to take in while they're simultaneously trying to teach," Himschoot said.

So what do new standards, teaching evaluations and an emphasis on "STEM" -- science, technology, engineering and math -- mean for Sitka children? Mostly it means that new generations of students are going to learn the same concepts in ways different from those of their parents.

"If I were to say it in one line it would be something along the lines of we're changing how we teach, we're changing a little bit what we teach and we're trying to make sure that we prepare kids with the tools they need," Himschoot said.

Essentially, education is migrating away from memorization of facts and toward how students can best find those facts in future problem solving. With so much information available, Himschoot said, it's about helping kids find the good information and how to apply it.

"I think a couple hundred years ago you could learn the volume of knowledge that was out there ... those days are long gone. So now education has a different charge," she said.

But that doesn't mean modern education is swapping out multiplication tables for Google just yet.

"We've always taught the basic facts, those are the tools of being able to do math. Now we're looking at, yes, you still need those tools .... but my job is more about sparking your interest to understand a greater complexity in mathematics and teaching you that those tools that you're learning are part of a bigger picture in mathematics," Himschoot said.

And that's a big part of the Alaska Math and Science Conference to be held in Sitka. Sparrowgrove wants the speakers and the field trips to not only highlight Sitka but also emphasize the same real-world objectives that teachers should be taking back to their classrooms. He added that it's also a great opportunity for parents to find out what all this new rhetoric about changes in education will actually mean.

"We'd love to have the community come in and sit in on sessions. We'll have renowned scientists and speakers," Sparrowgrove said, adding that a number of Department of Education employees will be coming down to talk about what all these new standards and mandates mean.

"Some of the timely things like assessment with the new state testing, teacher evaluation, the English specialists, math, science, they're all coming."

Himschoot said home-school families should also feel welcome to check out the conference.

"It might be a chance to learn some new tricks or expand what they're doing," she said.

Keynote speakers for this year's conference include Alaska Commissioner of Education Mike Hanley; Dan Meyer, an advocate for innovation in math instruction; and Rodger Bybee, who co-authored the Next Generation Science Standards. Alaska has not adopted those standards but Himschoot said they could very well be the next change to Alaskan education.

Sitka school district teacher Cyndi Duncan is also helping coordinate this year's event along with retired math teacher Bobbi Jordan and Mt. Edgecumbe science teachers Jack Davis and Matt Hunter.

Committee members have spent the last 22 months preparing, and Himschoot said an additional push of local help will help them accomplish their top non-education priority.

"Our other objective is to showcase Sitka. So we want to share Sitka and show that we can put on a conference as good as Anchorage or Fairbanks."

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Information from: Daily Sitka (Alaska) Sentinel, http://www.sitkasentinel.com/

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Tom Hesse

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