Inquiry Based Science in Action at McQuaid

March 9, 2011

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In June 2010 I profiled McQuaid Jesuit science teacher Jeanne Kaidy on The STEM Blog.

Kaidy had just been named by President Barack Obama as one of 103 American teachers to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

Kaidy, who has been teaching for thirteen years and is the chair of the science department at McQuaid Jesuit, attributed her recognition for the unique hands-on, inquiry based approach she brings to teaching science.

“I have an entirely inquiry and hands-on approach to teaching,” Kaidy said. “It appeals to kids who need tactile hands-on learning. That’s really what science is.”

Last week Kaidy invited me to see her approach in person when her AP Environmental Studies students presented their Mock Wolf Trial – a culmination of a month of research and preparation.

The excitement in her classroom was palpable when I arrived.

The boys – mostly juniors and seniors – were busy making final touches on their costumes.  Most had changed out of McQuaid’s signature navy blazer, khaki pants, and tie uniform and into clothes that represented the characters they would role-play during the trial.

Among the costumes were: an environmental activist, a Yellowstone National Park official, the governor of New York, a dairy farmer, a deer hunter, a commercial land developer, an ecotourism tour operator and more.

The name of the mock-trial was “Bringing Back the Wolves” and the question posed was “Should gray wolves (Canis lupus) be reintroduced to the northeastern U.S. (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York)?

Kaidy set up her classroom like a courtroom – on one side were the plaintiff’s – the “Defenders of Wildlife” arguing that wolves should be reintroduced to the wild.  On the other side were the defendants – the State Government of Maine – arguing against the reintroduction of the wolves.  In the middle was the witness stand.

As the “trial” got underway it was instantly clear that Kaidy’s students on both sides had prepared.

To facilitate preparation, prior to the hearing each team had to submit finished copies of opening and closing statements, a list of questions for witnesses (with expected answers), a list of questions expected on cross-examination (with answers) and a complete bibliography.

Each student also had to submit a reflection paper and a position paper.

The trial was judged by teachers Kaidy asked to observe.  The teachers scored the teams on opening statement, questioning, closing statements, judges questions, team participation, and costumes.

While I personally favored the costumes and team spirit on the plaintiff’s’ side, as the trial progressed I could see more preparation on the defendants’ side come through.  Having grown up in the Adirondacks and knowing a bit about this issue myself, I thought the plaintiffs would have a slam dunk, but by the trial’s end it was obvious the defendants won.

Kaidy said this is not the first time this has happened. “Sometimes the defendants prepare more because they feel they will be the underdog,” Kaidy said. “We saw that today.”

I spoke to members from both sides of the courtroom after the trial and quickly forgot what side they were on – what stood out was how much they had learned.

“This experience totally changed my opinion about wolves,” said senior George Grobe. “I learned more by having to research the issue myself instead of just hearing about it from Ms. Kaidy.”

Junior Alex Bourdelais agreed.

“I like hands on work,” Bourdelais said. “I learned that with the re-introduction of any species you have to look at the direct consequences and the indirect consequences. Sometimes the indirect are more important like we saw today.”

And, junior John Buono enjoyed the experience so much he is considering a career in environmental law.

Kaidy was pleased with the trial.

“Both sides had a lot of team work and showed me they understood the ecology, economics, and politics of wolves,” Kaidy said. “Those are all parts of what environmental science is.”

As I was leaving the classroom I noticed a bumper sticker on Kaidy’s blackboard that said:

“The truly educated never graduate.”

I believe Kaidy’s approach to teaching will absolutely ensure that even as these young men leave McQuaid they will carry with them an inquiry based approach to learning that does not stop when the assignments do.

Article and photos by Caurie Putnam

President Obama Names McQuaid Teacher Tops in STEM Education

June 21, 2010

Ms. Jeanne Kaidy of McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, NY

Jeanne Kaidy – a science teacher at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester – has been named one of the top STEM educators in the nation by President Barack Obama. 

On June 7, Kaidy was one of 103 American teachers announced by President Obama as a recipient of the 2010 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.  Kaidy was only one of two teachers from New York State to win this prestigious honor.

The Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching is given annually to the best pre-college-level science and mathematics teachers in the nation. Recipients are selected by a panel of distinguished scientists, mathematicians, and educators following an initial selection process done at the state level.  Winners receive a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation and an expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C. for an awards ceremony at the White House.  

In the official White House press release listing Kaidy as a recpient President Obama said: “Science and technology have long been at the core of America’s strength and competitiveness and the scientists and engineers who have led America on its remarkable path to success share something very precious: science and math teachers who brought these critical subjects to life.” 

Obama continued: “Today we honor some of the best of these teachers and thank them for their dedication. They are inspirations not just to their students, but to the Nation and the world.”

Kaidy was nominated for the award by an anonymous source at the Advanced Placement College Board – a testing organization she does consulting work for.  Following her nomination she had to write a 25 page essay on her philosophy of teaching.  When she found out she was one of President Obama’s choices for the award she was thrilled, but found her students were just as excited as she was.

Kaidy's students from McQuaid doing research at Mendon Ponds.

Kaidy has been teaching for twelve years.  All of her teaching – including student teaching – has been at McQuaid.  In addition to teaching biology and AP environmental science, she is also the chair of the science department.  She has a Bachelor of Science in biology with a concentration in aquatic ecology from State University of New York at Brockport, and Master of Science in education from Nazareth College of Rochester.

In speaking with Kaidy it was readily apparent what makes her unique as a STEM educator. “I am a scientist at heart,” Kaidy said, “That is how I see the world.”  Kaidy lives the subject she teaches and treats her students as scientists as well. “I am a purist,” Kaidy said, “I teach the scientific method and what scientists do in the real world. I treat my students like scientists and give them as much exposure to the real world as I can.”

When students enter Kaidy’s Advanced Placement environmental science course they quickly learn that Kaidy is not a teacher that confines her lesson plans to the classroom.  “The first thing we do is go white water rafting,” Kaidy said. “They learn the intrinsic value of nature and it brings the class together quickly.”

Some of the other unique experiences Kaidy gives her students are a mock wolf trial – where the class debates reintroducing wolves into the Adirondacks and field work at Mendon Ponds.  At Mendon Ponds her students must design their own experiments ahead of time. All of her lessons are problem solving and inquiry based.

Another trait that sets Kaidy apart is her willingness to fail in front of her students.  “I am not afraid to try new things in the classroom even if they [the experiments] fail,” Kaidy said, “If you model risk tasking in front of your students they won’t be afraid to take risks either.”

The teacher not afraid to fail has won the most prestigious teaching award in the county – there is a lesson to be learned in that.

Article by Caurie Miner Putnam, Coordinator of the STEM Mentor Program at the Rochester Area Colleges Center for Excellence in Math and Science.