Inspiring at home and abroad

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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is celebrating American Education Week Nov. 14-18 by featuring a different staff member each day. While these CMS employees have different positions and backgrounds, all of them bring dedication and enthusiasm to public education.

Deb Semmler felt drawn to science at a very early age. Now she is inspiring others at home and abroad to pursue science. ​

Semmler, who has a degree in engineering, has taught physics at East Mecklenburg High for 20 years. Her three daughters are East Meck graduates and have followed in her footsteps, becoming science teachers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She also encourages her students to develop a love of science.

Semmler mixes technology and practical applications to create engaging lessons. She develops interactive labs to help students solve problems. In her most recent lab, she taught motion using Chromebooks, the SPARKvue application and a device similar to a railroad flatbed car that was placed on a track with sensors. The application, read the sensors on them, collected and graphed data for students to analyze. Students wrote down their theories about the trials before the start of the lab.

"I've asked students to conduct at least three trials, adding weight to the flatbed cars each time," said Semmler. "They are testing speed, velocity and acceleration to determine if the flatbed car will go slower, faster or stay the same."

Semmler said only about 50 percent of her students get the correct answer.

Deb Semmler_inside1.jpg"It's not because their theories aren't well thought out. It's because there are perceptions about how things work and then there is the reality," she said. "Once they see it in action, it makes sense and the information sticks."

Senior Caleb Stowe and sophomores Benjamin Burgamy and Isabel Cosby had different theories. But they agreed on one thing: the point of the assignment wasn't to see who was right or wrong but rather to do what scientist do — test theories.

"We get to work in groups and use cool equipment," said Benjamin. "I want to be a mechanical engineer and this class helps me prepare for that career.

During the lab, 10th-graders Rilee Rampersad and Tyra Peterson faced some challenges. Their flatbed car kept bouncing off the track after hitting the sensor, even when no weight had been added. After some observation and collaboration, they figured out they needed to release the car from a different point on the track.

"We always learn something new in this class," said Rilee. "We aren't just studying formulas and graphs — we get to see our work in real time."

Moreover, Semmler's impact extends far beyond Charlotte. She, East Meck biology teacher Connie Wood and North Mecklenburg High chemistry teacher Anita Sturgis have traveled twice to Rwanda to share the inquiry-lab concept with high school educators who teach girls. Her trips led Semmler to take a lead role in Rwanda Pivot Academy, which served more than 150 students at the Byimana girls school.

"The academy helps teachers shift from teaching through textbook memorization to approaches that use the design cycle and hands-on experiments to develop their students' critical-thinking and problem-solving skills," said Semmler. "It is tailored to — and for — them."

Deb Semmler_inside2.jpgScience- and engineering-supported activities included tower building, a volume-surface area bag design and an egg drop design and redesign. These activities prepare students for their final projects, which are designed to solve local challenges.

"We had student mentors from Kepler University in Kigali, Rwanda, and from the U.S. help teach the content," said Semmler. "We wanted them to see what is possible, that they can graduate and go to a university."

Semmler has no plans to slow down. She presented information about Pivot Academy at the K-12 Global Education Symposium held Oct. 19-20. This symposium is co-sponsored by the North Carolina State Board of Education, the Department of Public Instruction and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education. She is also part of the Charlotte Teachers Institute, a co-founding member of East Meck's National Academy Foundation, Academy of Engineering and Global Immersion Steering Team.  

"Science is who I am, not what I do. I want to spread it as far and wide as I can," she said.