Tanya Sharpe, Ph.D., teaches her eighth-grade students at Sandy Springs Middle School about mixtures and solutions. (FCS)

Tanya Sharpe, a science teacher at Sandy Springs Middle School, knows that students must be engaged to close any academic gaps, so she designed a different way to teach her eighth graders.

“I try to relate everything to the one love kids have. They love video games, they love doing hands-on activities, but they also love food,” she said.

Whether it’s new content or old content they should have learned in the sixth or seventh grade, but the pandemic got in the way, she tries to mold her teaching method to what engages them, she said. Now she’s sharing what works with her colleagues, the school’s other two eighth-grade science teachers.

“I think that by the end of the year, we will have made a huge impact and these kids are going to be more than ready for not only high school, but it is my dream that they’re ready for Advanced Study,” Sharpe said.

One example of her teaching plan was on the topic of mixtures and solutions. The traditional teaching method is to mix different solutions in a graduated cylinder, showing how they separate based on their density. Then an insoluble solution is thrown into the graduated cylinder and students see if it dissolved.

Before starting the lesson, she surveyed the students on what they like to eat. No one liked vegetables, but they were “thumbs up” for salad, she said. So for her lesson, she had her students create salad dressings.

She brought in the salad and made croutons, even adding emulsifiers into the lesson – which is a content piece they wouldn’t normally see until high school. She said it was a perfect example of bringing higher-level science where they could understand it.

The students were able to take their own salad dressings home and tell their parents what they did and learned in class.

“The parents thought that was really cool because a lot of the parents were making their own salad dressings at home and had issues with why they were not just mixing or staying well mixed for a decent amount of time,” she said. “And the kids were able to explain to them what emulsifiers were and how they needed to add an emulsifier” to get their salad dressings to mix.

The salad dressing got additional use when the lessons shifted to acids, bases and salts. They were learning what acidity results in creating a basic salad dressing. They learned how to neutralize the salad dressing for someone eating the salad who has acid reflux so the diner won’t end up with heartburn.

Sharpe had to adjust her teaching plan when classes first started in August as she learned her students lacked the lab skills they already should have learned. The school district provides a curriculum map, but she needed to address those gaps caused by COVID, especially during virtual, remote learning.

“I think virtual science is wonderful to make sure everyone’s on the same playing field, but there is much value in hands-on being engaged with the equipment knowing how to light a Bunsen burner,” she said.

The students love touching and reading the equipment, making measurements, and creating their own labs.

She convinced her principal, Laurie Woodruff, that her students needed lab coats.

When they wear the lab coats, “they not only take on a persona that ‘I can do this, not only can I do this, I could be a scientist I can be a researcher I can answer these questions.’ And just that attitude change is enough to overcome a lot of their deficiencies,” she said.

Prior to returning to the Fulton County school system, Sharpe spent 15 years in the Advanced Placement (AP) Program, at the College Board where she managed the AP Chemistry, AP Biology and AP Physics courses and exams, globally.

Students in Tanya Sharpe’s classes learn through a hands-on approach using items they can relate to. (FCS)

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.