American Education Week profile: how learning comes alive in Jess Noffsinger’s science class

Eighth graders at STEM Magnet Lab School in Northglenn aren’t just thinking about going to high school. They’re thinking about going to Mars.

“The biggest problem with going to Mars right now is you can’t land enough mass on the surface for people to stay long enough. And so the kids are going to create systems to land more cargo on the planet,” explained teacher Jess Noffsinger at the start of a problem-based learning unit with her science class. “These kids get so amazed and excited, and they’ll keep trying to figure it out.”

The students will get some professional guidance to solve this dilemma when they visit scientists at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder to learn how spacecraft are built. And when the project wraps, they won’t be taking a paper and pencil test for a grade. Students will present their findings to a panel of 14 engineers who will come to their school to evaluate their reasoning and provide feedback.

Jess Nofsinger teaches science class at STEM Lab Magnet School in NorthglennAll of this intense activity won’t remind many adults of their days back in the eighth grade, but real-work experience is what today’s students need and what Noffsinger is happy to deliver.

“I love science, it makes my heart smile and I try to spread that to my kids,” said Noffsinger, a member of District Twelve Educators' Association. “We do real science. It’s not, ‘here’s a textbook and here’s facts that are already figured out.’ We take a question, we explore it and the kids come alive because they want to know the answer and they want to solve that problem.”

Noffsinger’s devotion to connecting with and inspiring her students exemplifies why our nation celebrates American Education Week. Observed this year Nov. 14-18, #AEW2016 is a week to honor teachers and education support professionals for all they do to support children.

Noffsinger was honored for her teaching in an extraordinary way during the summer. She was one of 108 teachers in the country to receive a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. PAEMST is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government specifically for K-12 mathematics and science teaching, recognizing “those teachers who develop and implement a high-quality instructional program that is informed by content knowledge and enhances student learning.”

Noffsinger’s award entry cited her high-quality instructional strategies, her use of data to drive instruction, and how she creates a sense of wonder and inquiry in her classroom. “These kids can look anything up on their phones. I ask them how to think,” Noffsinger explained. “Gone are the days where the kids want their teachers to pass on knowledge, they want to find out the knowledge. We stay on the side and let that happen.”

This year’s group of outstanding math and science teachers missed out on meeting President Obama, who was visiting Laos at the time. But they toured the White House, met with Education Secretary John King, Jr., and attended symposiums which validated Noffsinger’s teaching approach to give students the freedom to control their learning. She also found her school’s tight focus on STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – is special.

“They were shocked we do it for every kid,” Noffsinger recalled from her conversations in Washington D.C. “In most schools, the honors kids in math and science get a STEM track. We believe in STEM for every child who wants to learn and be here.”

Jess Nofsinger teaches science class at STEM Magnet Lab School in NorthglennMore students will get the chance to explore STEM and learn from Noffsinger thanks to community voters passing a $350 million bond measure for the Adams 12 Five Star Schools District on Election Day. Approximately $15 million will be invested in STEM Magnet Lab School to expand learning space, add lab facilities, and fix chronic problems with water main breaks, exploding air conditioner systems and extreme heat and cold temperatures in the building.

“Oh my gosh, it's heaven on earth,” Noffsinger said of the upcoming reconstruction. “This building is falling apart.”

For American Education Week, Noffsinger wants people to know good things are happening in her school. She feels an obligation to share her students’ success with her community.

“People think they know what school looks like, but do they know it’s this?” Noffsinger pointed back to a group of students who quietly and methodically solved a critical thinking puzzle with minimal direction during the course of our interview. “These students don’t need my involvement at this point because they are so engaged in what they’re learning.”