HOPKINTON — During a science lesson on magnetism and electricity, textbooks were scarce.
Instead, fourth-graders in Clare Ornburn’s class at Ashaway Elementary School wrote in journals, used their own investigative skills to study magnets and were hands-on with nails, nail files and other objects to find out what magnets attract and repel.
“Science is cool, it just is,” fourth-grader Eleanore Parent said, “and it makes it more fun when you actually get to find out for yourself instead of reading something in a book.”
About four years ago, Ornburn, a 20-year teaching veteran who has spent the last 10 at Ashaway, led a transformation of science education at the small elementary school in Hopkinton.
That makeover has earned her national recognition: a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Ornburn is among six teachers in southern New England and 102 teachers across the country to receive the award.
“We were technically doing inquiry-based science,” Ornburn, who lives in Westerly, said, “but we weren’t doing it well. It made us rethink what we were doing. Now we’re letting the students discover and figure things out. Students are leading the lesson, we are guiding them.”
Ornburn’s decision to tweak the way she taught and bolster the inquiry-based learning already in place — an approach to learning in which students explore, question and investigate questions or ideas — has had an impact on Ashaway’s student achievement.
Across the last three years, the proportion of Ornburn’s fourth-graders who have tested as proficient in the science NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program) has jumped from 42 percent, to 75 percent, to 86 percent.
Now, Ashaway Elementary has the No. 1 score in the state in science.
“The success is not coincidental,” said Steven Morrone, the former Ashaway Elementary principal who nominated her for the award. Morrone is now the assistant principal at Chariho Regional Middle School.
“It is through Clare’s commitment to learning new best practices in science and implementing with innovation and fidelity,” Morrone said. “She drives herself to be better and in turn drives her students to be the best scientists they can be.”
Last week, students like 9-year-old Eleanore tested a group of objects against magnets. They collected data and discussed their results. “The experiments are kind of fun,” Eleanore said. “It’s like we’re scientists.”
Added Ornburn: “Science has to be hands-on. They have to learn by doing, whether it’s building race cars to study motion and design or creating our own telegraphs to send Morse code across the room. Now students are so excited to learn. They’re better scientific thinkers and better critical thinkers.”
All grades at Ashaway are practicing the inquiry-based method of teaching, a change that Ornburn has helped to facilitate, in part by arranging teacher training for a University of Rhode Island program called Guiding Education in Mathematics and Science Network. Teachers from different towns have also come to her classroom to observe her teaching.
“This is not just my award,” Ornburn said. “It’s the whole building’s award.” Her colleagues, she said, “are amazing, hard workers. Everybody has changed, not just the fourth-grade. So we’re all reaping the benefits.”
The White House announced the Friday before Christmas that a panel of scientists, mathematicians and educators chose the winners following the initial state selections.
Ornburn will receive $10,000 from the National Science Foundation and will travel to Washington, D.C, in the coming months to meet President Obama and attend an awards ceremony. Exeter math teacher Regina Kilday was Rhode Island’s other recipient.
Ornburn, who turns 50 years in February, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree from Rhode Island College. She grew up in the North Stonington public school system.
“I screamed when I opened my email and saw that I was chosen,” she said. “It’s been a whirlwind. To meet the person who runs your country, regardless if you’re a Democrat or Republican, is such an honor. It’s a humbling experience to be recognized for something you love doing.”