Nov. 21, 1996
River Falls Weather Station Is Constructivist
By Jennifer DeNoma
UW-RF News Bureau
An object that's shaped something like a television antenna with appendages will be almost as indispensable as a blackboard and chalk in Ann Elling's Rocky Branch classroom.
It is a weather station, and it will be used in all kinds of lessons, from science and math to language arts.
The weather station is a practical demonstration of a "constructivist" collaborative education project between the River Falls and Hudson school districts and UW-River Falls.
Constructivism emphasizes making learning meaningful for students through real-world activities, so that students will become more self-directed in the learning process. That makes it more likely that students will understand and apply larger educuational concepts to other everyday situations.
The outdoor weather station is an ideal example of constructivism at work. It is connected to a state-of-the-art Macintosh computer and a separate screen that displays readings in temperature, wind speed and direction, light and barometric pressure. The station also houses a flow-through rain gauge.
The idea for the weather station came naturally for Elling: her students suggested it after they surfed the World Wide Web and found similar sites. She also thought it would be an exceptional teaching tool.
"I thought it would be something the kids would like and also serve as a catalyst for learning across the curriculum."
Finding a weather station and the funds to purchase it with was more difficult than she expected. "I called all the area television stations and finally KSTP gave me information about Weather Source."
Weather Source produces smaller scale weather stations for educational use along with the appropriate software and lesson plans. Still, the expense was about $4,000. Elling, with the help of Sue Popelka of the UW-River Falls physics department, wrote a grant request to the Toyota Corp., but were turned down.
Elling then turned to local businesses for support. A number of area businesses and associations contributed to the weather station, including Dick's IGA; Rocky Branch PTA; Goals 2000-River Falls School District; Trout Unlimited; More 4; First National Bank of River Falls; River Falls State Bank; WESTConsin Credit Union; Rodli, Beskar, Boles, and Krueger; M&I Community State Bank; QMR Plastics; and Ed Vlack.
Eventually the whole regional area will be able to benefit from the weather station. Individuals can modem over to the computer in Elling's classroom for weather conditions instead of relying on weather forecasts from the Twin Cities, which can often have drastic weather differences. Plans for a web site are underway.
Local school districts will be able to tap into the weather station to decide school closings and late starts.
Trout Unlimited will be able to use the weather information generated by the station to forecast conditions on the Kinnickinnic.
Elling's fourth-grade students will hone their writing skills by contributing a weekly "weather facts" column in the River Falls Journal.
The weather station is not the only unique characteristic in Elling's classroom. An observer might notice that there is a greater fluctuation in the size of the students than in other classrooms.
That's because the class is a mixture of 4th and 5th graders. Elling team teaches with John Gildseth next door, but the two classrooms sometimes separate into same grade groups when necessary.
While some have voiced skepticism of how multi-age students could work and learn together, Elling and Gildseth like the arrangement.
"While some were concerned that two grade levels would widen the ability gap between the students, that didn't really happen. The students are able to pick friends from a wider group, so they are more likely to choose friends who share their interests rather than confining themselves to their same grade peers."
Elling believes that more freedom in selecting friends boosts the students' self-esteem. In a recent critique of the classroom, one 5th grade student wrote, "I feel liked by both 4th and 5th graders and the teachers."
The students take over some of the administrative duties in the classroom, like taking attendance and wiping off the chalkboards. Elling says that enables students to see her less as a "supervisor" and more of a facilitator of knowledge.
Elling is one of two dozen teachers from the River Falls and Hudson school districts who are participating in a collaborative "Goals 2000" grant project. The grant, titled "It's About Time" is essentially an educational philosophy dubbed "constructivism" with an emphasis on the use of technology in the classroom. The pilot is a cooperative project between the UW-RF College of Education & Graduate Studies and the River Falls and Hudson school districts.
To facilitate students learning cooperatively, Elling arranges her student's desks in groups of threes rather than the traditional line pattern. One of the lessons she recently taught had students arranging brightly colored squares to simulate a room.
One student noticed that the length and width of each side was 6 feet, with the total area 36 cubic feet. "Does that have anything to do with square roots?" the student asked.
"It certainly does!" Elling replied. In math as well as other subjects, Elling sets up tasks for students to work on in small groups. She asks them to make note of any discoveries they find. Then she introduces the lessons in a more traditional manner. The students get excited to find that their "discoveries" were on target.
"We're not as structured as a traditional classroom" says Elling. "Sometimes the students get sidetracked but discover other meaningful things, so we change gears."