As the fourth largest state in the union, Montana extends to regions so sparsely populated students attend one-room schools staffed by teachers whose nearest colleague might be a hundred miles away. While news of education reforms may reach these rural teachers, opportunities to examine and discuss them with peers are rare. EDC’s Center for Science Education (CSE) wants to change that.
CSE manages the EDC K-12 Science Curriculum Dissemination Center, which was created in 1999 to familiarize schools, particularly those in poor or isolated areas, with exemplary science materials, and to help them implement those materials in local districts. The materialstwenty-six curricula developed primarily with funding from the National Science Foundationare alternately known as "inquiry-based," "modular," "kit-based," or "reform" curricula. They replace the older "lab and lecture" instruction in science with one that emphasizes student learning through active inquiry and hands-on involvement.
"Good materials are a first step," says Barbara Berns, project director. "And we believe these materials are solidrigorous, developmentally appropriate, and accommodating different learning styles. But we’ve seen we have to go further, and seek out and assist those school districts that have had limited exposure to NSF curricula or other national science education reform efforts."
Local Leadership Is Key
The Center has identified ten such regions (see list at right), and within each has designated a "hub" from which outreach and recruitment efforts radiate. "The local leadership is key," stresses Berns. Working with hub leaders, EDC offers two seminars, one designed to introduce the materials and a second to guide schools through the issues they will have to address during adoption and implementation. Each hub also houses a library containing two sets of each new curriculum, and provides access to regional resources, technical assistance, and visits to classrooms where these exemplary curricula are in use.
The seminars are staggered, so that groups from five of the ten regions have now been through both seminars, five are preparing for the second seminar, and a new group is being formed within the five regions. The intention is ultimately to reach some 500 communities across the country with reform science curricula.
For Montana hub leaders Myra Miller and Ruth Johnson, science coordinators from the Bozeman Montana public schools, organizing the seminars has involved repeated telephone calls and a stream of letters and e-mails to the far reaches of their state. "But this is something we really need," says Miller. "Our teachers in small districts have very little contact with other teachers. It’s hard to bounce ideas off yourself!"
Meeting State Standards
Recently, EDC presenters guided the first group of some forty-five Montana teachers and administrators, representing 80 school districts, through the first, introductory, seminar. "The biggest question" teachers had, says Miller, "was, will these materials meet Montana standards and testing? Here in Bozeman teachers want materials that center on having the kids be the facilitators of their own learning, but they also want to make sure that the content is there."
The new materials look very different from the thick textbooks parents may be used to. "Parents need to be assured that their kids can indeed get into MIT with these curricula," says Ruth Johnson. "But it can be hard to see that with just a cursory look; the content doesn’t just pop out at you. The presenters did a very valuable thing in helping people see that."
The Center team schedules the first and second seminars about six months apart. "Our hope is that between the two seminars, participants will work with the materials, ask questions, and visit classrooms where the materials are in use," Berns says. "We’ve found some people leave inspired to do professional development in science education at their local levels. If they start a pilot, we’re overjoyed!"
Implementation is the issue facing the first group of participants in Mississippi, according to Tom Williams, associate professor of education at Mississippi State College, in Clinton, Mississippi. That group has been through both seminars and now, Williams says, school districts are asking, "how do we really make this change to a kit-based program?"
In Mississippi as in many other states, science has taken a back seat to math and reading because student tests in those areas have such high profiles, Williams explains. Teachers have often struggled to integrate science instruction into math and reading classes, or juggled time slots between science and social studies. Williams argues that the reform curricula, by weaving science and other subjects more tightly together, will be a boon for teachers.
"I think people are beginning to see that there is a need for [science reform]," he says. The new high-tech industries that are moving into Mississippi, "require people to think in deeper ways," he notes. "It’s not something we can just hope is going to happen. We’re going to have to plan for it."
Originally published on October 31, 2000