Kathleen Vandiver, director of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the MIT Center for Environmental Health Sciences, received the 2009 Science Educator of the Year award for Middlesex County in honor of her exemplary leadership in promoting and advancing science education for students and teachers.
The award, presented by the Massachusetts Association of Science Teachers, cited her work as developer of the LEGO Life Sciences kits. Using the kits of LEGO bricks and associated curriculum, teachers lead their middle school and high school classes through carefully designed lessons about basic chemistry and properties of matter, DNA, cellular biology and genetics concepts.
Vandiver, a former sixth grade science teacher at the Diamond Middle School, developed the chemistry curriculum to insure that her students grasped crucial concepts such as the difference between atoms, molecules and elements. As they manipulate LEGO bricks, students learn how substances can recombine in different ways and form compounds with new properties.
Students must master basic concepts to successfully move on through the science curriculum at each higher grade. Teachers using the LEGO curriculum report that students learn scientific facts, rather than just memorizing poorly understood vocabulary. "Science is not really about learning a collection of facts, but about uncovering a set of basic principles that underlie and explain the myriad facts," explains Vandiver. Collaborating with the LEGO Education Team, she has developed more advanced LEGO sets designed to teach concepts of DNA, cellular biology and genetics, such as how proteins are built and what happens when DNA develops mutations. Classes and teachers do hands-on LEGO protein assembly in a specially designed exhibit/classroom teaching space at the MIT Museum in Cambridge called Learning Lab: the Cell.