Educator Spotlight: Joe Benvenga

When a colleague at Case High School in Racine, Wisconsin applied for the Gizmos Science Success Grant program, Mr. Joe Benvenga got his first introduction to Gizmos. He quickly went from “not having a concrete understanding of Gizmos, to using Gizmos in my class at least once every two weeks. The ability to modify the virtual labs, and resources was vital to my students having a positive learning experience and understanding of the topic. I was hooked when I saw the ability to differentiate for all students, along with the large library of resources.”

Case High School is a Title I public school in Racine Unified School District. “The district has a high diversity amongst the student population. That is a positive, but it does lead to some challenges when looking for instructional tools that benefit students regardless of their background. Many of my students faced challenges that impacted their ability to learn in school. About half of my students did not have reliable access to the Internet at home if not using their phone. On top of this, many cared for their younger siblings while they themselves were not at grade-level with their reading and math skills. In the classroom, the makeup of the students with an IEP or English Language Learners were anywhere from 30-50%.”

“In our district, we use the Next Generation Science Standards to set the foundation for our curriculum. Gizmos fit nicely with the NGSS standards covered in my classes. For example: Standard ESS 1.1 on Space Systems aligned nicely with the H-R Diagram Gizmo. My students were able to gain a concrete understanding with the experience of the Gizmo as it built on the notes they had taken earlier in the week.”

A Gizmo that Mr. Benvenga has used in his classroom that helped deepen his students’ understanding is the Seasons: Earth, Moon, and Sun Gizmo. After using the Gizmo, “many of my students went from being proficient in the standard, to having a mastery type understanding post-Gizmo.” To cover the topic, “we start with a short clip and some notes to set the foundation. Then I model how seasons and phases of the Moon work using a globe and light while going through the process. After that, many of my students have an understanding of the relationship between the seasons and Sun, Moon, and Earth. However, the Gizmo on this topic allows them to dig deeper and manipulate variables to lead them to a higher level depth of knowledge. There were plenty of students who had a ‘light bulb’ moment during the Gizmo!”

When Mr. Benvenga first used a Gizmo, he had each student do it on a Chromebook while he modeled it on the board. “As the year went on, I continually changed from individual, small groups, and whole class type instruction. The type of instruction depended on the learning target for the class. I had major success doing the Gizmo as a whole-class and then walking around with a mouse for students to facilitate the lesson while the class stayed on the same page.”

Sometimes students answer the questions on the Student Exploration Sheet on paper, but most of the time they use a Google Doc to enter their answers. “The Student Exploration Sheet provided with each Gizmo was a great starting point. From there, I modified many of my questions to fit the key areas I wanted the students to understand by the end of the class. Towards the end of the year, one of my classes came up with the idea to see how many “pathways” they could identify to create energy. The students got into groups and listed as many as they could find. Then they had to explain the common theme among all the pathways they found. The best part about it was that it was the idea of the students on the spot, and not what I had planned going into the Gizmo! It ended up being an even better experience because of it.”

After participating in the Gizmos grant, Racine Unified School District decided to continue using Gizmos because of the “positive impact it had on student learning,” as well as their science teachers’ usage. He adds, “there was a huge impact on student engagement with Gizmos. The ability to manipulate variables, and adjust/reset as needed provided the students a level of comfort in the learning experience that they do not often have. They did not have to worry about ‘mistakes’ because the whole process was a learning experience built on the basis of the scientific process. Overall, student feedback was positive, and in certain areas there were improvements in the final assessment scores. As a bonus, students who were absent did not lose out on the learning experience because they were able to complete it at home or when when they returned to school.”

Joe Benvenga grew up in New York, graduated from college in Ohio, and is an educator in Racine Unified School District in Southeast Wisconsin. He spent four years as a Special Education teacher in an inclusion setting at both the middle and high school level, before teaching Earth Science and Chemistry at the high school level. Starting this year, he will be a Technology Integration Specialist for the high schools in Racine Unified. He’s excited to help teachers integrate technology software like Gizmos into their instruction.