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Teacher in the Spotlight: WFM's Erin Lawrence

Making Science relevant, engaging and effective

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The happiness quotient in Erin Lawrence's 6th grade Science class is off the charts. ~ Photo by Wanda Mukherjee The happiness quotient in Erin Lawrence's 6th grade Science class is off the charts. ~ Photo by Wanda Mukherjee

“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”--late MIT professor Edward Lorenz, father of the chaos theory.


WAKE FOREST, September 26, 2013 – In Erin Lawrence’s Wake Forest Middle classroom students are “researchers and engineers.” Team members in a company called the Shark Science Group where they are developing a breakthrough drug to cure a horrible disease.

Their drug -- Grape-X. Their mission -- Should this little drug go to market?

Pretending? Lawrence's students would beg to differ. They actively take on their roles becoming quality control experts, engineers and reseachers for an hour each day. 

LawrenceThat’s the Erin Lawrence effect.

Funny, engaging and energetic, the 2013-2014 Kenan Fellow “gets” her students. Lawrence understands their need to “experience” science in order to learn and master 6th grade content that has been bumped up a notch under the recent STEM initiatives (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).  She spent her summer working in a science lab writing a six-week curriculum based on what she observed.

Lawrence was among 49 teachers chosen from around North Carolina to participate in this year’s Kenan Fellows Program, a two-year program designed to provide selected teachers with opportunities to interact professionally with other outstanding teachers, policy and business leaders and research scientists, and offers professional development aimed at building strong instructional leadership skills.

Lawrence has that rare combination of mental toughness and relatability that enables her to effortlessly handle a classroom of 34 students with multiple learning styles.

WMS Principal Stacey Weddle said she believes Ms. Lawrence was chosen as a Kenan Fellow because she is an amazing educator. “Her students interact with technology on a continuous basis.  She differentiates instruction for all learners.  She builds relationships with all students and seeks opportunities for all students to be challenged.”

“She frequently provides staff development for other educators on how to utilize technology for student engagement and learning. She is a teacher leader in the classroom, school and district,” Ms. Weddle added.

And did we tell you that Ms. Lawrence is at the beginning of her teaching career?

Lawrence said the Kenan summer program has improved her teaching tremendously.

“I thought I was good teacher, but they have taken me to a whole new level.”

Lawrence is definitely a good teacher. Whether that can be attributed to training and opportunity or a genuine passion for the job, we cannot tell, but one thing was clear -- all of the students knew the routine and the rules.  Precious classroom time was not wasted with redirection. The students were ready, willing and able to learn when they walked in the door.

“I’m going to challenge these kids to create who they want to be,” Lawrence said. “I want them to learn to be a thriving citizen of the world.”

She finds most kids are very curious especially about space and black holes. They ask lot of questions.

“I’m not going to give them the answer. They have to discover the answer themselves.”

How Ms. Lawrence spent her summer

A small change now can make huge impact on the education of students, she said of her experience shadowing scientists and researchers this summer in the quality control department of Biogen-idec in Research Triangle Park. The company is working on drugs for multiple sclerosis and hemophilia.

She used the experience to write the 6-week curriculum on quality control for her students called “Should this little drug go to market?

The curriculum begins with a trigger. In this case, the Tylenol recall. The students explore why we need quality control, she said.

The students will then begin testing their Grape-X drug, which is really grape Kool-Aid. Each group will have two samples to conduct a series of tests and record the results just as if they were in a real lab. At the end, they will receive a Certificate of Analysis for their drug.

The curriculum also explores the ethics and economics of creating new drugs while at the same time it encourages the students to collaborate and gives them hands on experience.

She is also collaborating with the 7th grade science teachers on a one-week curriculum.

“It’s like the butterfly effect,” she explained. “The Kenan fellowship allows me to go out and learn ways to be an effective teacher. I bring that back to my school and share the knowledge with other teachers and my students.”

The impact of the experience for Lawrence is not linear—rather it is more like a ripple affect when it comes to student education. “The program and businesses invests in teachers. Teachers then bring what they’ve learned to their school to share with their colleagues and students.”

According to Lawrence, the fellowship gives teachers the opportunity to bring innovative teaching methods they have developed during their summer fellowship into their lesson plans. “We share the content and curriculum with our colleagues and then this is shared to the district and state and then to the national level.”

The opportunity to work with many science teachers from around the state was exciting to Lawrence. “We are helping each other and impacting students we will never see. These innovations may end up helping a teacher on the other side of the country,” she added.

The effect on student’s educational growth in science has the potential to be exponential. “This one company and one group is bringing together 50 teachers from across the state. The rewards of that kind of investment and commitment in terms of the classroom are unbelievable when you think about it.”

Relevant, Engaging and Effective

Lawrence uses the Kenan principles of relevancy, engagement, and effectiveness in her classroom while teaching.

Her students were actively investigating, taking notes and working together without constant reminders to stay on task. Lawrence attributes their cooperative behavior to using hands-on, experiential assignments that might attract a student who has become bored with school. 

An innovative curriculum she contends might re-inspire students who may have loved science as a little kid but who became bored with paper and pencil work. For students already in love with science she believes they can be challenged to reach even greater heights.

“The fellowship gives us the opportunity to change the lives by improving our teaching,” Lawrence said.

We observed Lawrence teaching a unit on quality control the keystone to science inquiry and research. Students are learning the difference between Quantitative data and Qualitative data, a concept many adults have trouble comprehending. (Please see video).

“This is a difficult but very important concept for students to understand,” Lawrence explained. “So I spend a lot of time having them do hands-on experiential work that helps them grasp the difference between the two.”

She had students engaged by working collaboratively in pairs measuring, weighing and evaluating items determining which category to assign their data.

“You learn by doing. Not just by hearing and seeing,” said 6th grader Ethan.

 “She gets us.”

Editor’s Note: The Happiness Quotient. Healthy Classrooms.

Wake Forest Today had an opportunity recently to videotape Lawrence’s class.You can judge a lot of teachers by the “happiness quotient” inside their classroom.  It appeared to be off the charts at 10 a.m. that morning. Does happiness equate to better learning outcomes? Researchers would say so.

Sometimes it’s tough to quantify the contribution a teacher makes to the lives of students.  We can look at test performance to get an idea of whether students retained material. But what about the “life” test? Did she teach them to be thinkers and problem solvers or just teach them to parrot what they heard or read?  These concepts are not mutually exclusive for any group of children.

The characteristics we observed in Lawrence – confident, organized, disciplined, knowledgeable about her subject and happy. Yes, Erin Lawrence is one happy teacher. You feel it as soon as you walk into the room. We suspect her students do too.

Written by Wanda Mukherjee, Editor