When your third-grade science class involves paper airplanes and roller-coasters, you know it’s something special.
Innovative lessons like that brought teachers Brandi Leggett of the De Soto School District and Anne Sobba of Shawnee Mission awards last week from the Kansas State Department of Education.
The Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching salute the top three teachers in the state in math and science, separately.
Leggett, who teaches third grade at Prairie Ridge Elementary in Shawnee, is up for merit in science teaching, while Sobba, who teaches fifth grade at Nieman Elementary in Shawnee, is being honored for math lessons.
The awards alternate each year between honoring elementary and secondary educators.
As state finalists, Leggett and Sobba win a $500 prize and will be considered for the title of national finalist, which will go to one science and one math teacher from each state next spring. National finalists win $10,000.
It’s not an easy competition. After a 12-page application with a resume, letters of recommendation and essays about leadership, teachers must videotape a 45-minute lesson and submit the recording, along with their own critical analysis of how the lesson went.
For a science lesson on force and interaction, Leggett had her third-graders build pendulums to understand gravity. After that, the kids got to fly paper airplanes to learn about air resistance and bounce different balls to test force.
The cherry on top was a Skype conversation between the class and the designer of Worlds Of Fun’s Timberwolf roller-coaster and a chance for students to build their own model coasters.
“I try to always include people from the real world for them to understand about how it applies on an everyday basis,” said Leggett, who has been teaching for nine years and was a finalist for the 2014 Kansas Teacher of the Year award.
In the fall, Leggett told her students what they would accomplish over the school year through lessons like that one, and some didn’t believe her.
When May rolled around, “they thought it was really cool that they were able to do more than they thought they could when they first came in,” Leggett said “By the end, a lot of them were saying they were proud.”
She gauges the success of her lessons by asking her students to write on sticky notes to tell her what they learned, what ideas the lesson gave them and what they still don’t understand.
Sobba, who teaches fifth grade in Shawnee Mission, also likes to bring in tangible examples to help her students grasp mathematical concepts.
“I try to make it as realistic as possible, so they understand the reason why they’re learning it,” said Sobba, who has taught for 13 years. “Even if they struggle with it, we can help them be successful. I feel like my relationship with the kids is what makes them invest in it.”
Many of the math activities her students do are in the form of computer games and others often involve dice. In the lesson she submitted for the award, Sobba chose to do a hands-on activity to illustrate how volume works.
Sobba gave her students smaller cubes that could stack up and become a larger cube to illustrate how many units comprise the bigger cube’s volume. The exercise also allowed students to create other shapes with the small cubes.
“They’re all different shapes, but they all have the same volumes,” Sobba said. “I use the real world application of (what they would need to do) if they were moving and had to move boxes into a moving van.”
Both teachers get ideas for lessons from a variety of sources — the Internet, textbooks, other teachers and more.
“There are millions of ideas out there on the Internet,” Sobba said. “Teachers are great about collaborating and sharing ideas with each other.”
Leggett and Sobba keenly appreciate the work of their peers in education.
“I may have gotten an award, but I know there’s a lot of really good teachers out there that have gone unrecognized that do just as good, if not better, work,” Leggett said.