Teacher Earns Fellowship With Classroom Innovations

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Rim Country Middle School teacher Joe Schmidt, who was recently recognized as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, says he has young people pretty much figured out.

The key to keeping students on task and out of trouble is to keep them engaged, says the seventh-grade science teacher.

"My philosophy is that kids who are actively involved in learning are not creating problems, so we do a lot of hands-on, exploratory-type activities in my classroom," he says.

He brings into the classroom such things as "garbology," a science unit Schmidt developed in which students analyze bags of garbage to parallel how archaeologists actually work. "Teachers assemble the bags, and then the kids try to figure out whether it comes from a retired couple, what their interests are, their hobbies, their income, things like that," Schmidt says.

As part of the unit, Schmidt's classes learn how early civilizations functioned by duplicating aspects of their lifestyle.

"In studying prehistoric Indians, they learn to make shampoo from yucca roots, and to use the fibers from leaves to make sandals," he says.

In another lesson Schmidt developed, students have to figure how to make artificial bugs "scoot" across the surface of water.

"It's really a lesson on surface tension," he says. "We do some background research into surface tension and insect design, then each student designs and builds a bug out of aluminum foil, toothpicks, clay and Styrofoam packing nuggets. Some bugs start out pretty whacky, but as the kids master the concept of surface tension, their designs usually evolve into something that looks like a water strider."

The really fun part comes for the students when bug meets water in Schmidt's special version of the Grand Prix.

"We race them in trays of water right in the classroom," he says.

The surface tension lesson was submitted as part of Schmidt's winning application for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Scholarship. Out of several thousand applicants from throughout the nation, he was one of just 45 awarded scholarships.

That means he will leave June 27 for Princeton University where he will spend 26 days participating in a summer institute for environmental science. Activities include field trips, opportunities for working with technological resources, research time with mentors, peer instruction time, and special interest meetings on such topics as national standards and performance assessment.

Gloria Joe, another middle school science teacher, put the fellowship application on Schmidt's desk. "She won one some years ago, and she said, 'This looks like you.'"

Currently in his sixth year at the middle school, Schmidt also has taught in Tonto Basin and at the Payson campus of Eastern Arizona College.

But, he says, he loves working with middle-school-aged children.

"These kids are really on the cusp of who and what they are going to become," he says. "You can have a tremendous impact on them at this age, and that's probably why I teach seventh grade.

Schmidt's fellowship requires him to share what he learns with his colleagues back in the Rim country. To prepare him for that task, Princeton promises to send him back "completely energized and totally exhausted."

Kind of the way he likes to send his students home each day.

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