A succession of middle and high school science teachers on Friday climbed the bleachers at Capitol Middle School carrying Barbie or Ken dolls tied to long strands of strung-together rubber bands and proceeded to drop them to the gym floor.
The winning doll managed to come within 4 centimeters of the floor without hitting.
Other dolls were not so lucky.
A couple of Barbies and Kens crash-landed.
Ludy Guillermo’s Ken doll had the opposite problem. It didn’t hit the ground 13 feet below, but it didn’t fall very far either.
Guillermo, who teaches physical science at the Baton Rouge middle school, was not fazed.
“I tell my students all the time, ‘If you don’t get the right results, try again,’ ” Guillermo said. “That’s one of the best things they can learn.”
“Barbie doll bungee jumping” was one of 16 activities the science teachers participated in this week during a four-day training session. They were among 350 teachers from throughout East Baton Rouge Parish who filled the campus to learn what they could, not just in science but also in math and English. The trainers were brought in by the Dallas-based National Math and Science Initiative.
Trainers Rob Quarles and Kelly Vandergriff prepped the teachers in advance for their experiment with dolls and gravity. Small teams of teachers tried to calculate how many rubber bands would produce the right amount of elasticity to bring the venerable Mattel toys nearest to a near-death experience with the gym floor.
Vandergriff urged the teachers not to let their students lose sight amid the excitement of the scientific question at the root of the activity.
“What they’re doing is manipulating data by figuring out how many rubber bands it takes to go 13 feet,” she said.
ExxonMobil, through its charitable arm, footed $275,000, the first-year bill for the training. The goal is to help high school students master these subjects so they can earn college credit via Advanced Placement courses, earn a college degree and ultimately help fill future jobs in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields.
“Louisiana has the highest number of available STEM jobs in the country, and we need to get teachers who are ready to meet this challenge,” said Bob Johnston, chemical plant manager for ExxonMobil in Baton Rouge.
The training program, known as Laying the Foundation, is scheduled to continue through 2017 with four-day training sessions each summer. The East Baton Rouge Parish school system’s charitable foundation, Foundation for EBRSS, handled the ExxonMobil grant and also is trying to line up support to pay for future summer training sessions.
Superintendent Warren Drake complimented the teachers who participated this week.
“School has to be fun for kids,” he said. “I know that, you know that.”
Amber LaCour, who is starting her first year as a teacher, said she’s been happy to find activities she can bring to the Algebra 1 classes she’ll be teaching at Broadmoor High School.
“I wanted ideas on how to explain things to kids using open-ended tasks, things that get them up and moving,” she said.
Sherwanda Johnson, principal of Greenville Superintendent’s Academy, said she was a little skeptical at first that she would learn things this week that would work at her alternative school that focuses on middle school students who are behind their peers. That passed quickly.
“Words can’t express what I’m feeling,” she said, saying she’s seen plenty of “out of the box” but still usable lessons this week.
Trainer Quarles, who teaches environmental science and biology in Pflugerville, Texas, said he consciously avoids lectures when he’s doing training sessions.
“I call it ‘death by PowerPoint,’ ” he said. “I’m proud to say I used no PowerPoints this week.”