Finding evidence of the Big Bang theory is not something everyone does during summer vacation, but it was for a group of eager incoming Old Saybrook 9th-graders.
The students conducted their research as part of a new summer pilot program. The program compresses a year-long earth science course into an intensive summer course. During July, students attended class at Old Saybrook High School from 8 a.m. until noon, five days a week (with July 4 as a holiday). At the end of the month, the students who successfully completed the course had earned a full-year of high school credit in earth science.
“The goal of the summer program for credit was to allow students to accelerate their science pathway and provide them with more options for upper level science classes in their schedule,” says Michelle Zimberlin, a second-year science teacher at Old Saybrook High School who co-taught the course.
Any incoming 9th grade student was eligible to take the summer course.
“Every week was a different unit,” says Michelle.
One week a unit would focus on how the universe was formed, then the solar system and finally, the Earth. Another week’s unit focused on the Earth, its cycles (as an example, the water cycles) and how each cycle influences others. In a final unit, research and discussion focused on how humans influence the Earth and sustainability.
Many class days, “we did [earth science] labs—we would set these up at the beginning of class, and then go to project or collaborative group work,” says Michelle. “I never felt rushed. For all of the projects, we had plenty of time to do the work in class. There was very little homework. This first year of the summer program was very successful. I was very excited about it.”
Michelle team-taught the course with Old Saybrook Middle School science teacher David Plotkin. Each week, Michelle taught two days, Plotkin taught two days, and on Friday, both were in the classroom.
“My favorite part [of team-teaching the summer class] was that when students did big projects, we were both in the room to hear their presentations and we could calibrate [our grading]. And we also individually graded each test and lab and then collaborated [on our grading] for consistency,” says Michelle.
Plotkin joined Michelle because he already has taught earth science at the middle school.
With this year’s district transition to the national Next Gen Science Standards, all 8th graders are now in an integrated general science class, so for 8th grade students who want to have space in their high school schedule for more upper-level science classes, they have a dilemma that the summer for-credit earth science course solves.
Michelle was thrilled to have the opportunity to teach earth science in this year’s summer pilot program. She’s hopeful that as more parents and students learn about the district’s summer science option, more will enroll. District staff are already considering whether there would be enough student interest to add another summer for-credit course, perhaps one like Advanced Placement environmental science. Any expansion would have to be based on student interest and participation.
Trained as a marine biologist, Michelle has no regrets about trading in her lab bench for a high school classroom.
Her path to science teaching was through the state’s ARC (Alternative Route to Certification) program. After earning a master’s degree in marine science—her research was on bioluminescent phytoplankton—she soon realized she would rather spend her working life teaching kids about science than spending it doing science research in a laboratory. That’s when she sought ARC certification.
Working with kids in educational programs was something with which she also had experience. Between college and graduate school, she worked in the education department of Mystic Aquarium and also had worked in a hands-on marine science summer camp in Stonington. She knew she would like teaching kids science as her career.
“I’m a people person and staying in the lab a lot—it was not for me,” says Michelle. “As a scientist, it’s really cool knowing how things work and then being able to educate the kids about it. I never have had a boring day teaching. No two days are ever the same.”
Now she teaches both earth science and a marine science elective at Old Saybrook High School, and she also serves as the sophomore class advisor.
“I’m happy to be their advisor—they’re such a great group of kids,” says Michelle.
Though Michelle loves teaching science and advising the high school students, she hasn’t lost her first love of the ocean and being out on the water, so when she has free time, that’s where you’ll find her.
“I have a captain’s license and worked for years in marinas driving launches and boats for people. I love the ocean and being out on the water as much as possible. I like to fish, too—I fish a lot,” Michelle says.