Creating a Whole New Planet for Math and Science

BY Rebecca Jacobson  April 24, 2013 at 3:21 PM EDT

As part of an ongoing web series, NewsHour profiles STEM teachers who have found innovative ways to teach their students about math and science.


Video by Rebecca Jacobson and Cindy Huang.

Jerriel Hall meets his 23 students in the hallway on a Thursday morning to tell them they are no longer third graders at Leckie Elementary School in southwest Washington, D.C. They are cadets on the spaceship Achievement. And he is not their teacher, but the alien ambassador Newton, who will be their guide to his home planet.

“Welcome to the dark zone,” he says.

When the students walk into their classroom, black curtains speckled with bright paint hang in a semicircle around the center of the classroom. Glowing stars and moons are set around the classroom. Tables are littered with glowsticks.

A video of Hall wearing headphones pops up on a whiteboard at the front of the room. “Cadets, cadets, this is mission control,” the video says. “If you are able to hear this message please contact mission control immediately.”

Newton informs the class that they must take measurements and record data on this new planet. To repair their ship and return to Earth, they need to solve math and science problems at each station on the planet Entramedon.

“We are going to collect data and measure, all those fun things you humans like to do,” Newton tells them. “I guess you’re human,” he adds, prodding one of the boys. “Are you human?”

It’s fun and a little silly, but their mission is serious. The third graders are reviewing math and science skills before the DC Comprehensive Assessment System test this month, the yearly high-stakes standardized exam for grades 2-10 in the District of Columbia. Creating a new fictional setting, complete with props and a storyline, engages the children’s imaginations and forces them to put their knowledge into a new context, Hall said.

This is his fourth year teaching, and this isn’t the first time that Hall has turned his classroom into a new setting for his students this year. His first transformation turned his classroom into an emergency room, giving the kids white coats and face masks. They formed trauma units, solving multiplication and division problems to save patient Charlie Brown.

The students loved it, he said, and since then he has also turned the classroom into a restaurant and a beach. It’s a surprise every time, so the students have no idea what’s coming until they receive a note at breakfast that morning. The activity takes the whole 90-minute class period.

For the outer space scenario, Hall is reviewing measurements, graphing, multiplication and division. He’s thrown in some physics as well, having students solve word problems about gravity, force, energy and motion.

The playful settings gives students more experience with word problems, Hall said, on which each of the classroom stations relies. Occasionally, a new message from mission control pops up, giving the class a new problem they must solve together to repair the communicator.

The third graders get into the story too, asking Newton why, if he’s an alien, he speaks English. When one girl asks where Mr. Hall is, one of her classmates says, “We’re not on Earth anymore. We crashed. Don’t you remember that?”

While the students are calling him Newton for the day, Hall has another name for his students: scholars. Scholars always strive for excellence, he tells them, and scholars go on to college, which seems light years from the third grade. But Hall reminds them that college is a reality for them, too.

“A lot of these students have never had a teacher that told them that they were going to college,” he said. “A lot of them didn’t even know anyone who went to college. I do not let them forget why they are here and the work and the urgency that we need to do to complete our tasks, so they can be successful and go to college.”

Do you know a science or math teacher who has a creative lesson plan for his or her students? Send us your nominations here, and your teacher may be featured as a part of this ongoing series.

Related Links:

How Math Got Its Groove Back

Chemistry Teacher Mixes Science and Innovation and Sets It on Fire

For the Love of Pi and the Tao of Tau

STEAM Ahead: Merging Arts and Science Education