The sound of a motor whirring is met with excitement in the corner of Kelly Rudd’s classroom.
“We got it!” Austin Owen, 10, exclaimed.
The assignment was demonstrate the evidence of the flow of electricity. The fourth-graders at Prairie Heights Elementary School had to get a small motor running. The hum of several could be heard minutes after Rudd divided the students into groups.
“I just knew, to make it run, we had to have metal to metal,” Aveyda Black, 9, said.
The students used small circuit bases, “D” batteries and wires to complete their experiment. Rudd introduced a switch a few minutes later, which provided the students with hands-on knowledge of a closed and open circuit.
All materials for the hands-on experiment were delivered to Rudd in plastic bins from Grant Wood AEA’s VAST Center. The Van Allen Science Teaching Center provides kindergarten through eighth grade science curriculum units to more than 200 Grant Wood AEA schools.
“I’m able to give them a hands-on experiment every day,” Rudd said. “Kids love science because they get to do something every day.”
The idea for the VAST Center began during the 1992-93 school year. Several teachers expressed the need for hands-on science units, kits that would allow their students to try the activities studied in the textbook. Grant Wood AEA responded by putting together materials designed to enhance the classroom curriculum.
The kits include everything a teacher needs for a particular unit — from rubber bands and push pins to dried honeybees and hissing cockroaches. Teachers can request a particular kit for delivery to their school, at no cost to them.
“We originally operated out of a closet at the main Grant Wood AEA building,” said Carol Mann, VAST Center operations.
The program grew — quickly. Demand for the science kits led to a new location — the VAST Center — which opened in 2001.
“The year we moved here, we had orders for 1,400 science units,” Mann said. “This year we have 4,900 units circulating.”
It’s a constant cycle. The kits are put together by technicians and delivered to classrooms. Kits delivered back the center are unpacked, reviewed for broken or missing materials, then repacked for the next scheduled delivery.
But there’s more to VAST than the kits.
The Center provides on-site professional development to educators before introducing the materials in class. Schools that use VAST kits are required to send their teachers to a Level I training session each year. The six-hour sessions allow teachers to complete every step of the experiments they’ll be doing with their students, ensuring that they understand the concepts.
“It’s a critical piece of the program,” said Erica Larson, a VAST science consultant.
The Center hosted 55 in-service opportunities in August and September. Another 53 are scheduled through January. Training is staggered throughout the school year so teachers receive the kits while the information is fresh.
The average teacher uses two to four kits throughout the school year. It takes between 8 to 10 weeks to teach each unit.
“It’s fun doing experiments in groups,” said Taylor Cline, 9, one of Rudd’s fourth-graders. “You actually see how something works.”
Grant Wood AEA is the only AEA in the state with this program. However, Grant Wood entered a partnership with Mississippi Bend and Keystone AEAs in 2006, expanding the VAST Center to some schools within those agencies.