Larry Chew handed the 15 science teachers straws, markers and pingpong balls.
Place the markers on the table to create goals, he instructed. Then blow through the straws to push the ball through your opponents' goal. Keep track of how many times someone scores against you.
The teachers, in groups of three, laughed hysterically as they blew — and blew and blew — trying to move the ball past each other's markers. They gamed the angles. They ganged up, two against one.
They had loads of fun, without knowing yet what the University of Central Florida aerospace engineering associate professor had in mind for them.
That was part of his lesson, though.
"Often times, we mistake that teaching science is teaching what is in the book," said Chew, who spent two days this week at John Long Middle School training science teachers how to better engage their students in their daily lessons. "Science is teaching them how to figure out what is in the book. The key is to make connections."
In this case, he was using a game to begin instruction on Newton's First Law of Motion, which states that an object generally keeps doing what it has been doing — moving or standing still — unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
The game gave everyone in the room a common activity to share, so they could have similar experiences upon which to base their discussion. Such a technique boosts understanding.
Just as principal Beth Brown intended.
Brown said in reviewing student achievement data, she and her teaching team noticed that students made gains in science — a key curriculum priority in Florida and nationally.
"But where we saw some needs were the higher-level thinking concepts," she said.
So the science teachers decided to bring in Chew to help them reach the next level, at the same time the state is training them to use the recently approved, more in-depth science standards.
"It's very useful," teacher Heather Lentini said. "This way the kids can get more into discussion and actually explore it."
She liked the idea of doing an activity, and then having students talk their way through the concepts with guided questions from the teacher, who provides information without lecturing.
"They get more value because they think more," said teacher Kim Monbarren.
Plus, it makes teaching more fun, added teacher Rod Starkey.
"We get to interact with the kids on a different level," he said.
After blowing on their pingpong balls for a while, the teachers got new instructions from Chew.
Take out a whiteboard, he said, and, working together, write five steps to play this game using the words "force," "balance" and "unbalance." After a few minutes, Chew began the class conversation.
One person would share one of his group's steps. Chew would ask another whether she agreed with that step.
"Does anyone have a different point of view?" he asked, opening the conversation further.
He modeled how to get the students talking in a controlled environment, where he focused the learning but didn't dominate.
The group delved further into the topic of Newton's law, using observations and conversation to explore the meaning without always using the scientific terms. Chew focused on having the participants say in their own words what they had learned.
"We need to have the kids internalize the concepts," he explained. "When I write something down, they copy it. It means very, very little."
Teacher Lisa Sans worried that some of her students don't have a lot of their own words to use. She asked for ideas on how to reach them without relying on memorization.
The bottom-line answer: Practice. Offer the concept in a variety of ways, helping the children arrive there without spoon-feeding them.
"Most of us educators think that we are helping students when we tell them information, we tell them what to do," Chew said. "We forget that it's human nature, when we tell them what to do, they stop thinking."
Even the most experienced teachers in the room said they benefited from the session.
Darcy Cleek, who trains science teachers around the state, said the new ideas should keep her fresh and help her find different ways to make sure her students are truly understanding what they are hearing.
"I need it as much for me as I do for them," she said.
The team planned to begin using Chew's advice as soon as possible. Look for the pingpong balls and straws to begin popping up at school within the next few weeks.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.