Exemplary OCT

Sean Clark, OCT

The Next Generation's Guide to the Galaxy

by Leanne Miller, OCT

SEAN CLARK'S FASCINATION WITH SPACE STARTED at a young age and hasn't stopped since. "I grew up on the holy trinity of Star Trek, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica," he says, laughing.

So it's not surprising that Clark was recently named the inaugural recipient of the 2010 Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence, a Space Educator Award for outstanding, innovative and creative teaching of space sciences. This new award is supported by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

"The Canadian Space Agency's Space Learning Program has [witnessed] first-hand his dedication and innovation in bringing space into his classroom while incorporating information and communications technologies, employing innovative and exemplary teaching practices and demonstrating tremendous leadership," wrote Marilyn Steinberg, Program Manager of the CSA Space Learning Program, in her letter nominating Clark.

Clark describes his teaching at Sacred Heart Catholic High School in the Ottawa Catholic School Board as hands-on and interactive. As part of his practice, he also keeps himself informed. In 1999, when a space unit was added to the Grade 9 curriculum and a Grade 12 earth and space science course became available, he enrolled in a first-year astronomy class at Carleton University. These days, when he's not compiling a photo collection of the night sky, he's visiting the Kennedy Space Center, scouring space museums or logging countless hours at the CSA.

"It's about deepening my knowledge so I can better engage my students," he says.

He first worked with the CSA in 2006 when a software firm hired him to help develop Space Navigation: When Math Matters, a senior geometry multimedia resource designed to ensure that students stay engaged while they work through space-related math problems. The material has since been added to the Grade 12 math curriculum.

Clark's board naturally looked to him for assistance when it implemented the Ministry's 2006 science curriculum revisions. That same year he revamped his school's Grade 9, 10 and 12 earth and space components.

To honour Clark's commitment to space education, the CSA invited him to a 2008 professional development (PD) opportunity on planetary geology in Nunavut. Following this, Clark co-delivered PD sessions at the CSA's National Educator Conference and the Science Teachers' Association of Ontario (STAO) Conference. He has also conducted STAO workshops in areas including culminating tasks, student research and climate change.

Clark continues to fine-tune his curriculum to deepen student engagement. In fact, he's now revamping his Grade 9 course into what he calls a smarter blend of different collaboration for 21st-century learners. It's part differentiated instruction, part co-operative learning, fully hands-on and completely student directed. He plans to eventually offer space, ecology and electricity as an à la carte menu, allowing students to choose the order in which they learn topics, based on their interests. They will also decide how they'd like to learn, for example, from articles, projects, videos, simulations or investigations, which Clark would identify for them.

Choice is an important factor in student learning, Clark believes. "By Grade 9, students know how they like to learn," he says. "When you give them a choice —rather than saying, 'Today we'll cover this worksheet; tomorrow we'll review that note'—they develop a greater sense of ownership about their learning. This in turn makes it more meaningful."

He tested this approach during his first-semester space unit, which he felt students wouldn't need much motivation to get interested in. That unit was one of the reasons he won the Prime Minister's Award.

Clark's ultimate goal is to provide real-life application and deliver rigorous teaching to support the 21st-century learning journey. Today, his Grade 9 students are studying electricity through practical small-group inquiry activities. They introduce materials such as paper, lead and glass into a light bulb's electrical circuit. Tomorrow they will draw inferences from their observations and use these to design and run their own experiments, investigating how different materials conduct or disrupt electrical currents.

By Grade 9, students know how they like to learn. When you give them a choice, they develop a greater sense of ownership. This in turn makes learning more meaningful.

"The kids need to know how the circuit works and why the bulb lights up," Clark says. "More importantly, they must distinguish between observation and inference and draw appropriate conclusions. These skills are applicable to all subjects, not just science."

Does Clark's unique approach work? Students Pascal, Brooke, Merri and Luke think so. Here's what they have to say about the time their teacher took them outside to study ecology.

Sean Clark, OCT, helps grade 9 science students see stars figuratively and literally.

"He made us think like deer," reflects Pascal.

"We had to find food, water and shelter," adds Brooke.

"Then we saw what happened if one of those things was removed," says Merri.

"Our deer population started to die," Luke observes. "We saw how all parts of the ecosystem are interrelated and necessary for survival."

Technology is a prime engagement tool for Clark, and lessons often integrate Smart Boards. In today's Grade 10 applied—level class, Clark reviews a quiz on the interactive whiteboard, recording correct answers as students call them out.

"We understand better when we see what he's teaching up on the board," says Connor. "Plus, now we have the right answers to study for the exam."

Simulations (aka Gizmos) found on explorelearning.com —a Ministry-approved website that provides interactive online simulations of the curriculum's key inquiry activities —are also a popular tool that students like to use.

"They learn it hands-on in class," explains Clark, "and then go home and review a simulation to reinforce their learning, or see it again in another format that better suits their learning preference."

Clark uses his own website to post lesson summaries, exemplary student work and sample test questions and answers. There's also a calendar that shows test and assignment dates. Parents appreciate having this information, and students know that if they miss a class they can catch up at http://www.sites.google.com/site/mrclark21ca.

"He always has a plan for the day," says Nick, who, like most Grade 9s, appreciates a structured learning environment. "There's always a challenge on the board when we arrive, so we get right to work thinking about science."

Brennan agrees."It's exciting to come in and see what we're doing each day."

Emma adds,"We always look forward to science."

And what is Mr. Clark's best quality?

"We have to work hard for him," says Pascal, "because he works so hard for us."

Sean Clark, OCT, helps his Grade 9 science students see the stars both figuratively and literally.

3 tips to help make science meaningful

Sean Clark relies on these methods to get through to his students and teach
them the difference between "I can’t do that" and "I can’t do that yet":

1. Refer to the familiar: Link a new discussion to a real-life situation. For example, compare an ecosystem to the family farm or fish tank.


2. Refresh prior learning: Activate knowledge from previous units to help teach new material. By making a connection to a previous year’s content, you’re not only keeping past lessons current but reminding students of its enduring relevance.

3. Rethink the link: Link new content to the scientists who developed the ideas. When students learn what great minds had to overcome to make their historic discoveries, they feel comfortable with their own questions. It humanizes the concepts.