From the world's smallest electric motor to a pet tornado, students in Roger Rohrbach's fourth-grade classroom at Payson Elementary School experience the world from an exciting perspective.
Rohrbach, who was just named Elementary School Science Teacher of the Year by the Arizona Science Teachers Association, believes the scientific process needs to be simplified and applied to daily learning. "I believe you have to blend philosophies and subject matter with reality to create well-rounded students."
That's why Rohrbach frequently forgoes the lecture-discussion method in favor of a problem-solving or format-of-inquiry approach. "The job of schools," he said, "is to teach students about the world."
One of the ways that philosophy comes to life in Rohrbach's classroom is the ham radio located in the back. "This magnificent piece of technology gathers radio waves out of the spectrum and allows us to learn to communicate with people around the world," he said. "In the process, we learn communications skills, we learn science and social studies as we chart the contacts on maps and notice how radio waves move and bounce off our ionosphere."
But Rohrbach, who has been teaching for 29 years, 23 in Payson, believes there must be structure to the learning process. "Without structure, our educational system is reduced to entertainment, but the key to being effective in applying educational philosophies is variety," he said.
To achieve that variety, Rohrbach has his students engage in such projects as building their own model rockets and AM radios. And he and his students spend a lot of time in the outdoor laboratory he created behind PES.
"Joanne Doyle and I got a $5,000 grant to develop an unused, off-limits area of the school into a learning habitat that has become the pride of PES," he said. With the help of over 25 local businesses who donated time and material, Panther Heritage Park became a reality.
Students installed a drip irrigation system; planted trees, bushes and native wildflowers; constructed a flagstone sidewalk; and built compost bins.
"Vegetable and fruit scraps from the cafeteria, horse manure from pets, and grass clippings from the school playground are mixed in the compost bins by students who gladly give up their recess to work in the park," Rohrbach said.
One of the students' favorites in the park is a thriving worm bin. "They bring black and white newspapers and coffee remains with filters from home for the worms," he said. "The fourth graders eagerly look for the new worm cocoons in the bin."
In keeping with Rohrbach's philosophy, the park represents a lot more than just an opportunity to learn a little science. "Through hard work and discipline, students develop a sense of self-efficacy from this habitat," he said. "Through this pride they get from doing something worthwhile, they will hopefully treat each other with respect.
"And then maybe some of this will make its way home. By taking care of their community at school, my hope is that the students will become more responsible at home with their families. My hope is that this school-yard habitat will become a catalyst in the development of a healthy attitude in the real world."
Rohrbach will be honored at a special awards breakfast this Friday, Dec. 8 in Phoenix, where he will receive a plaque and a $100 honorarium. While he appreciates both the honor and the recognition, Rohrbach would rather be out in the park with his students.
"Although at times I feel like a hunk of bird seed when pecked on the entire day at school, I love my students and I enjoy being around them," he said. "I am fortunate and feel truly blessed."