St. John’s Teaches Cadets Critical Thinking Skills Using a Creative, Immersive Approach to Science in the Classroom

Three innovative science teachers at St. John’s Military School are teaching cadets the critical thinking skills they will need in college and the workplace by taking a creative approach to instruction in the classroom. Chemistry teacher Pam Kraus, Biology teacher Sue Jordan, and Earth and Space teacher Anna Befort make up the core science department at St. John’s Military School. The three teachers strategize on how to make their science curriculums more engaging and relevant to the young men in their classrooms. The fundamental approach they share to immersive, applicable instruction, has enabled cadets to learn not only important lessons about science, but important lessons about teamwork, critical thinking, and perseverance.

“We are fortunate to have three science teachers who are very creative and innovative thinkers,” said Ginger Wooten, academic dean at St. John’s Military School. “They have really dedicated themselves to staying current with what is going on in the world of science. They work as a team extremely well and are experienced teachers who think specifically about how to make an impact on young boys, who we know really need a hands-on approach to help them succeed in the classroom.”

The goal of each of the science teachers at St. John’s is to make science applicable, and fun, so that regardless of what career paths their cadets intend to pursue, they can benefit from the critical thinking skills learned in the classroom.

“Students are best able to understand biology concepts when they see how it applies to their everyday life,” said Jordan. “One of the first themes we study is biology in the twenty first century and how it’s changing. To help the cadets understand how biology applies to their everyday life, we explore the meadow near our campus. The cadets get to experience some of the fundamentals of how a biologist studies the ecosystem.”

Befort echoes Jordan’s sentiments.

“This generation take a hands-on approach to so many things in their lives,” said Befort. “Sitting through a lecture is not how they learn best, so in our Earth and Spaces classes, we pass around rocks and minerals and we show video clips of the Kansas salt mines, which gets their attention and results in them asking leading questions.”

Kraus takes extra steps to make the abstract concepts she teaches in her chemistry class interesting and relevant. Cadets build molecular models using marshmallows and toothpicks, and learn about density using Tootsie Rolls.

“Some cadets come into my Chemistry class expecting the coursework to be difficult. Whenever I can do something hands-on and get their interest it helps me to convince them that they can excel at the subject.”

More than 90 percent of cadets who graduate from St. John’s Military School go on to enroll in four-year colleges; however, not all will pursue a career in the sciences. Regardless of the path their cadets take, the science teachers at St. John’s Military School believe the critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork skills their classes reinforce will benefit their cadets no matter their career interests. Befort and Kraus have seen how participation in the school’s robotics team in particular has helped to reinforce these skills.

“The program stresses a concept called ‘coopertition,’” said Befort. “The robotics program is a competition among teams, but what’s more important is working together.
Even competing teams help one another during events.”

For Kraus, the inclusivity of the Robotics team is one of the program’s greatest benefits.

“Some cadets who join the team are interested in programing, but others just want to be part of something,” said Kraus “They may just want to help with the documentation or help us organize for competitions. Some are definitely interested in the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and math – but others just want to be a part of something greater than themselves. We also know that the expectations are changing in college. There is a much greater emphasis on collaboration and the ability to work in groups. We are preparing our cadets for that type of immersive environment.”

“Young men need hands-on engagement in the classroom,” said Wooten. “We are so fortunate to have these three exceptional science teachers at St. John’s Military School. We all know that our cadets need to learn to think creatively, but our teachers come up with ways to teach creatively. If we can link what our cadets are learning, in science specifically, to current events, those lessons are going to stick with them longer and will feel more relevant and important. When a cadet asks, ‘How will this apply to me?’ it inspires their learning and their creative thinking.”

When asked what the greatest impact Kraus, Jordan, and Befort’s instruction has had on the cadets at St. John’s Military School, Wooten points to the long-term future.

“It’s difficult to structure content and curriculum to prepare high school and college students for their future careers because the world around us is changing so fast,” said Wooten. “What doesn’t change, however, is the need that employers have to hire people who are critical thinkers, who are creative, who can work well in groups, and who accept feedback and use it as a means to improve. Our three science teachers incorporate all of those values into their classrooms to help our cadets prepare for the job market, no matter what jobs are going to be available in the next five to ten years.”