Kids, say ‘howdy’ to a new teacher

With help from Big Tex, fried foods and more, free les­son plans em­pha­size STEM skills

The Dallas Morning News - - METRO - By JEFFREY WEISS Staff Writer [email protected]­las­news.com

Big Tex is go­ing to be a science in­struc­tor this year.

Teach­ers and stu­dents who come to the State Fair of Texas will be able to use new les­son plans aligned with the state’s public school ed­u­ca­tion stan­dards. The em­pha­sis is on STEM — science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math. But art and history get at­ten­tion, too.

Top­ics in­clude: “Fried Stuff: The Science Be­hind the Bat­ter,” “Speed­ing Around: De­ter­min­ing the Speed and Energy of the Dentzel Carousel” and

“Sugar Rush! How Your Body Will Process That Fried Twinkie.”

The idea is that kids in fourth through eighth grades will be able to ap­proach the fair with a pur­pose, with spe­cific projects as­signed by their teach­ers that can be pur­sued while chow­ing down on a corny dog or tak­ing a selfie on the Texas Star.

The pro­ject, which cost about $40,000, was paid for by the fair and pro­duced by lo­cal ed­u­ca­tion non­profit Big Thought.

Whether the con­cept will work won’t be clear un­til the fair opens Sept. 25. That’s be­cause the folks who de­signed the les­son plans haven’t tested them with stu­dents. But about 90 teach­ers came to Fair Park last week to get trained on how to use the plans.

The pro­ject was cooked up by Jen­nifer Schuder, the fair’s vice pres­i­dent for mar­ket­ing. When she was hired in 2013, she started think­ing about how to em­pha­size ed­u­ca­tion, she said. Some top­ics are ev­i­dent: Agri­cul­ture and an­i­mal hus­bandry have been part of the fair since it started. But was there a way to use less ob­vi­ous el­e­ments as tools for learn­ing?

LeAnn Bin­ford, di­rec­tor of the Big Thought In­sti­tute, quickly bought in.

“That place is the most won­der­ful learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment,” she said.

So the con­ces­sion stands are a way to gain fi­nan­cial lit­er­acy and knowl­edge of how busi­nesses choose and price their prod­ucts. The cur­rent Big Tex is an en­gi­neer­ing marvel and a way to ap­proach Texas history and cul­ture. And then there’s the Woo­fus.

Ja­dyn Harris is a teacher who was Big Thought’s lead writer on the pro­ject. She started by tak­ing a tour of the fair­grounds and wan­dered into agri­cul­tural ar­eas that weren’t on her nor­mal fair­fun route.

The orig­i­nal Woo­fus was a one-of-a-kind statue and foun­tain in­stalled with the first fair in 1936. It was a fan­ci­ful beast that com­bined a sheep’s head, a stal­lion’s neck, a hog’s body, tur­key feath­ers and duck wings — all topped by the 10-foot-wide horns of a longhorn. The orig­i­nal van­ished. A replica Woo­fus was cre­ated and in­stalled out­side the Swine Build­ing in 2002. Harris was en­thralled.

So the Woo­fus is cen­tral to a les­son on how an­i­mals and plants in­herit char­ac­ter­is­tics and traits. He’s also men­tioned in sev­eral other lessons.

“I be­came ob­sessed with the Woo­fus,” Harris said.

Ev­ery les­son plan lists the spe­cific Texas Es­sen­tial Knowl­edge and Skills stan­dards it is de­signed to teach. The “Be­hind the Bat­ter” les­son, for in­stance, is tied to stan­dards that re­quire stu­dents to be able to solve one­and two-step prob­lems in- volv­ing mul­ti­pli­ca­tion and di­vi­sion, and to pre­dict the changes caused by heat­ing and cool­ing ma­te­ri­als.

Ev­ery les­son is also con­nected specif­i­cally to the stan­dards that teach­ers should be work­ing on dur­ing the first eight weeks of school.

“That’s what the teach­ers are need­ing to teach, any­way,” Harris said.

There’s mul­ti­me­dia ma­te­rial online for sev­eral lessons. The bat­ter les­son has a video pro­duced by the fair. Con­ces­sion own­ers who were fi­nal­ists in this year’s Big Tex Choice Awards were asked how they get bat­ter to stick on so many kinds of foods. Their prac­ti­cal an­swers are more culi­nary art than sci- ence.

Start­ing this week, teach­ers should be able to down­load 41 cur­ricu­lum se­lec­tions for free from the big­tex.com web­site. The fair gives away about 1.7 mil­lion tick­ets to stu­dents and teach­ers ev­ery year. Or­ga­niz­ers hope some of those teach­ers will choose to use the ma­te­rial. And that stu­dents will think the as­sign­ments are en­ter­tain­ing enough to shift them out of mind­less fair fun mode.

A cur­ricu­lum plan is go­ing to have to be pretty spe­cial to get kids to buy in, Harris ad­mit­ted.

“It’s go­ing to have to be so fun and ex­cit­ing,” she said. “They’ ll have to want to say, ‘Dang! I want to do this les­son.’ ”

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