TAMPA – Science class was downright super on Friday for fifth-graders at Oak Grove ElementarySchool.
Just like students across the state, they’ve been drilling for state standardized tests that begin this week.
But it wasn’t their teachers leading the review Friday. It was a collection of superheroes, complete with capes, masks and tights.
Some Hillsborough County schools, including Oak Grove, are piloting a program designed by a group known as the Scientific League’s Superhero Training Network. The network was formed by Audrey Buttice and Samuel DuPont, two University of South Florida graduates who design superhero-themed classroom materials and give science presentations to elementary students.
They came up with the idea as doctoral students in chemical engineering who spent a lot of time in local classrooms, conducting experiments with kids through a fellowship program. When funding from a National Science Foundation grant ran out, they wanted to find a way to keep serving the students and their teachers.
“We’re not trying to replace the teacher,” Buttice said. “We’re trying to make something that is useful for teachers — accurate materials the kids are engaged in.”
With help from environmental engineering doctoral student Robert Bair, they began filming episodes of themselves delivering science lessons with a superhero theme and infused with material fifth-graders will see on the science portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
In 2011, DVDs and accompanying workbooks were distributed to teachers at four Hillsborough schools. This school year, fifth-grade teachers in more than 20 district elementary schools are showing the videos in their classes for free.
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DuPont and Buttice are examining test scores to see whether students exposed to their videos are progressing in science.
Next school year, Buttice and DuPont hope to sell the materials to the district. The ultimate goal is for the program to spread nationwide and even internationally.
“We envision it to be a network of classrooms that interact with each other and do experiments around the world together,” DuPont said.
The goal is two-fold: to help teachers prepare students for the science portion of the FCAT, while getting them excited about science, technology, engineering and math.
It has worked for Oak Grove fifth-grader Sean Hobbs, 10, who raved about the videos and said Friday’s visit from the superheroes alleviated some of the test anxiety that comes at FCAT time.
“I have a certain space in my brain just made for science,” Sean said. “It felt like a gift to me.”
Starting Wednesday and running through May 7, students in Hillsborough and in public schools throughout the state will be tested in math, reading and science.
Those in the higher grades also will take end-of-course exams through the end of May in subjects such as Algebra 1, U.S. History and Biology.
It will be the last time students will take the math and reading portions of the FCAT, which will be replaced by a new assessment next school year that will be aligned to a set of academic goals called the Common Core State Standards.
Florida students will continue taking the science FCAT, which is aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards.
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Part of the superheroes’ job is visiting schools, where they conduct hands-on experiments and lead science-based competitions with students.
Oak Grove, at 6315 Armenia Ave., received a grade of B in 2013 from the Florida Department of Education. Nearly all of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and there is a large population of students there who still are learning English.
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The videos seem to have a positive effect at the school, where fifth-graders’ mid-year science scores on district exams were 20 percent better than the mid-year scores of last year’s fifth-graders, science resource teacher Ken Davis said.
“Our goal is always to meet or exceed district average,” he said. “This is the first year we’ve been above district average. If that correlates to FCAT, we are going to have a very nice increase.”
On Friday’s visit, DuPont and Buttice — in character as “MegaByte” and “Sublimation” — led a group of close to 150 fifth-graders in hands-on activities and a game in which teams competed to answer questions similar to ones they might see on the FCAT but with a superhero twist.
“It was like playing a game,” said 10-year-old fifth-grader Marcela Gaston, “and at the same time we were learning science.”