Arizona Republic
May 11, 2007

Author: Ray Parker, The Arizona Republic Estimated printed pages: 3

Jacobson Elementary fifth-grader Rushi Shah and his classmates had to explore a novel concept: thinking like a teacher.

"We're creating a Web site and coming up with ideas for teachers. There are
163,567 ELL (English language learners) in Arizona and they have to take tests after one year, so that's not a lot of time," said the 11-year-old, who is a member of Chandler Unified's gifted program, called Chandler's Academically Talented Students, or CATS.

The district's 1,400 CATS students took a new direction this school year with a teaching method designed to foster critical thinking and independent learning.

Called problem-based learning, the method involves students teaching themselves through discussing and researching current issues, such as how to teach those who must learn English in one year to take state competency tests.

The results of many of these CATS projects will be showcased Saturday with a community fair at Basha High School.

Problem-based learning is a break from the traditional teacher-oriented approach to teaching, but advocates say it equips these talented students with the lifelong learning tools they need to flourish.

"I just say, 'Go do it,' " Jacobson CATS teacher Diane Russhon said. "These kids are so inquisitive and they love a challenge."

In groups of six to nine, Russhon's 27 students have spent about 30 minutes every day for the past four months discussing and researching possible solutions to social problems, including the war in Iraq, holes in the ozone layer and dwindling forests. Those students had a direct effect by persuading administrators to increase recycling at the school's cafeteria.

And then there's what students call the Language Masters.

"I was surprised there were so many Vietnamese (students)," said Jimmy Xu, 11, adding the top three foreign languages spoken in Arizona homes include Spanish, Navajo and Vietnamese.

Diane Hale, the district's CATS director, said educators received training in the innovative teaching method.

"It's really exciting, this is why we decided to make it visible (with the student exhibition)," she said.

Russhon said she balances between challenging her precocious fifth-graders but not frustrating them.

"This approach gives them more space to discover things for themselves," she said.

Of course, students have been delving into real-world problems before this year, especially those involved in science fairs.

In April, Bogle Junior High CATS students dominated at the annual Avnet Science and Technology Fair, where their innovative science projects won more than any other school.

Science teacher Mina Sangani said she spends a lot of time discussing with the students what problems to explore, throwing out the obvious: What type of liquid do plants like best or what color will absorb the most heat?

"When they finally hit a real-world problem, they are so excited and eager to find a solution," she said.

Gifted student projects

What: Chandler Unified gifted students share their real-world projects with
the community during a community fair. In addition, there will be
interactive events, such as mock crimes and bridge building competitions.

When: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Basha High School gym, 5990 S. Val Vista Road.

CAPTION: 1. Daniel Lie, 11, of the Language Masters group, works on building
a Web site to help English Language Learners in his gifted fifth-grade
class. CAPTION: 2. Luke Sadler of the Crusaders group listens to a military
pilot talk about the war in Iraq. Luke is a student in Diane Russhon's
gifted students class.
Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Chandler Republic
Page: 8