High marks: Jeffers teacher wins science honor

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Jennifer Pera, an eighth-grade science teacher at Jeffers High School, will be presented with the Middle School Science Teacher of the Year award on Friday. The award is given by the Michigan Science Teachers Association.

PAINESDALE — Since Jennifer Pera started teaching in 1995, her students have been “doing science.”

What that means has changed over time as she’s found more effective ways to teach.

“It was very, very different for me to have to kind of shift over to having the students doing a lot of the figuring out,” said Pera, who teaches eighth-grade science and seventh-and eighth-grade math at Jeffers High School. “I’m guiding them and helping them make sense of what it is, but I wasn’t just the person spewing out the knowledge anymore.”

Her work caught the attention of the Board of Michigan Science Teachers Association, which is giving her an award for Middle School Science Teacher of the Year this Friday.

Pera was nominated by Emily Gochis, director of MiSTEM Network at the Copper Country Intermediate School District, and Chuck Palosaari, a fellow teacher at Jeffers.

For most of her career, Pera had been teaching science in a typical manner: lectures, followed by a lab activity in which students do a lab to confirm what they had been told would happen.

About five years ago, Pera started using the Mi-STAR science curriculum, which she helped develop at Michigan Technological University. Those are based on the Next Generation Science Standards, a framework introduced in 2013 that emphasizes critical thinking and the scientific method.

That effectively means flipping the script for classroom work. Kids will start with an anchoring activity to trigger their thinking, which lets Pera see what their prior knowledge is and if they have any misconceptions. That’s followed by a more hands-on activity.

“After that, they’ll share their findings, and we’ll have these class consensus discussions about what they noticed,” she said. “That’s when we’ll start maybe putting some science words to what’s going on, and then they’ll have a chance to apply what they learn in a different situation.”

In each unit, everything the students do builds towards solving a challenge. When they get the scenario at the start of the unit, students come up with the questions they will investigate.

Currently, students are studying forces of motion in the solar system. The unit challenge — developed before “Don’t Look Up” came out, Pera said — has students identify a giant mystery object headed toward Earth, and figure out if it will strike the planet.

For a just-finished unit on light and sound, students had to figure out how to fix a concert venue where neighbors complained about the noise.

The students make a model of what they think is happening and write scientific arguments. They then find evidence to support their claim, connecting it with evidence.

Pera loves to walk around the classroom to hear the conversations as students try to figure out what’s going on, or as they notice a pattern.

“That’s really exciting for me when I see them actually engaged in making sense of the world as opposed to just memorizing stuff and spitting it back at me and then forgetting it a week later,” she said.

Michigan Science Teachers Association President Holly McGoran listed several reasons for Pera receiving the award, including inspiring students, demonstrating innovative teaching strategies and exhibiting a passion for science and teaching.

Pera hadn’t initially planned to become a teacher. She entered Michigan Tech as an engineering major, which she quickly realized wasn’t for her. She switched her major to mathematics, and decided she would pursue education.

“I really liked the idea of trying to help other kids like math and science as much as I did, and knowing that if they had interest in math and science there would be lots of opportunities to choose from,” she said.

Pera said she is humbled to be honored when other teachers around the state are doing the same work. She works with many of them as a professional learning facilitator, and through a fellowship through Michigan Tech where a cohort of about 20 teachers are working for the five-year grant cycle to develop their leadership skills.

“I feel like I owe a lot of it to the other people that I’ve been working with, because they are doing amazing things, and then that inspires me as a teacher to want to do things differently or to try to be better,” she said. “It would have been a lot easier to just keep doing what I was doing, but it wouldn’t have been good for the kids. It’s actually a lot more fun teaching science this way.”


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