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Winter 1997

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Spring 96 > Article

Energizing Math and Science
by Jennifer T. Daly

When a Walton County, Ga., curriculum committee recently convened to select science books for its public schools, Wanda White challenged the members to design a soap carton.

Specific weight and measurement guidelines directed them. And in less than 20 minutes, 30 teachers, school administrators and parents proudly prepared to display their designs.

Instead, White, co-director of the Georgia Initiative in Mathematics and Science (GIMS), asked them simply to list the skills they used during the activity. They came up with dozens, such as writing, multiplying, dividing and sharing --sometimes debating --ideas with a group.

"That is the point of this exercise" said White, also a program coordinator in the University of Georgia College of Education. And that's the point of GIMS, a five-year, $10 million project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that seeks to improve math and science education in the state.

By bringing renewed attention to how much is learned through even the most simple math and science problems --like designing a soap box --GIMS officials hope to help textbook selection committees in Walton as well as other Georgia counties choose curricula that engage children in this type of learning.

In the same way, the overall GIMS project is designed to help educators statewide find new tools for sharing the wonders of math and science --two subjects that will serve as a foundation for the majority of 21st century jobs.

To increase math and science literacy among Georgia students, GIMS offers a pallet of programs that focus on curriculum development, diversity issues, teacher development and recruitment, and community partnerships for math and science education.

Guiding Curricula

The program's "Georgia Framework for Learning Mathematics and Science" may be one of the most important and lasting aspects of GIMS, White said. It's a sweeping document designed to guide curriculum development, instruction and assessment at both the state and local levels.

The work in progress focuses on things like "habits of mind" --broad-thinking abilities that should be fostered and encouraged in students. The idea is to get students into the habit of solving problems through experiments, innovations and critical thinking.

"Unless we can get students to begin to think like scientists and mathematicians, to experience some of the excitement and joy of problem solving, we are going to lose them" said Michael Padilla, GIMS principal investigator and a professor in the UGA School of Teacher Education. "We are trying to move away from the old chalk-and-talk' method of teaching, because we realize that kids don't learn very much from that."

GIMS planners originally had intended to review and revise Georgia's current curriculum package --Quality Core Curriculum (QCC) --but soon realized that the process of developing a new framework would be essential.

In developing the document, great efforts have been made to gather input from all aspects of the science and math community: teachers, principals, parents, mathematicians, scientists and representatives from business, industry and government.

"It's a document based on a combination of research and practical experience --the best of both worlds really" said Charlie Martin, GIMS evaluator and UGA public service associate.

But the practical side, said Padilla, is one of the primary reasons for the learning framework's growing use around the state.

"Teachers and schools need to feel that this is their curricula" Padilla said. "In order for it to make sense to the teacher and to the kids they're teaching, they have to have that kind of ownership."

This strong commitment to partnership is the key to GIMS' success and is what differentiates the initiative from past efforts to reform math and science education in the state, Padilla said.

The project is headquartered at the UGA School of Teacher Education, but leadership comes from 11 regional centers --each composed of one or more colleges, universities or businesses in partnership with one or more local schools, labeled Professional Development Schools.

"It's exciting because I believe we are changing the system" Padilla said. "It's not the university professor telling the teacher what to do. It's the two of them working together, along with parents, business leaders and politicians, to try to change the old system in Georgia."

An Inclusive Approach

GIMS' initial group effort focused on diversity. "We knew we had to do something related to this because blacks, women, Hispanics and other minority groups are very underrepresented in science and math fields" Padilla said. "So this issue had to come first since it's the one that is woven throughout all the other GIMS programs."

To direct this portion of the initiative, the GIMS team first developed a general document, titled "Diversity: A Framework for Excellence in Mathematics and Science." At the heart of the framework is the written acknowledgment that all children can and should learn math and science.

This may seem like common sense, but the reality is that 13 percent of the total United States' science work force is minorities and 29 percent is women, according to a 1993 NSF survey. In engineering, 14 percent of the work force is minorities and only 7 percent is women.

While many factors contribute to these figures, Padilla said, everyone involved with education --from parents to teachers to business leaders --needs to recognize the subtle biases that may affect whether children embrace math and science or view the subjects as boring, tedious requirements for graduation.

To promote this awareness among teachers, the GIMS diversity document, based on both research and practical experience, advises school districts to invest in professional development experiences where educators can, among other things:

  • Examine their own cultural beliefs and behaviors that contribute to classroom biases;
  • Gain direct experience in teaching students of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds to establish the positive expectation that each child can succeed;
  • Observe a diverse group of men and women who are successful in the fields of science and mathematics;
  • Use a variety of teaching methods designed to meet each student's learning needs; and
  • Observe behaviors that promote or inhibit equitable access to high-quality learning materials and technologies.

In line with the diversity framework, several GIMS programs have been initiated to encourage equity in science and math education. For example, Clark Atlanta University supervises Future Teachers of Mathematics and Science --a program to identify, recruit and retain minority high school students interested in becoming math and/or science teachers. Selected students are invited to a six-week residential academic summer camp and then participate in an academic follow-up program throughout their senior year.

Investing in Teachers

Students are not the only ones benefiting from GIMS. GIMS' efforts also focus on teacher education.

"A middle school science teacher in Georgia must be capable of teaching all the sciences --biology, chemistry, earth science, physics, astronomy, marine science" Padilla said. "This is a real challenge."

The challenge is compounded by the fact that the average middle school math or science teacher entering the profession in Georgia is being prepared at a level that is barely adequate or slightly below current professional standards, according to a GIMS-initiated study of preservice teacher education across the state.

To counteract this disturbing finding, GIMS created the "Principles of Educating Teachers" (POET). The goal: to improve middle grades teacher education at Georgia colleges and universities.

Again the format for change began with a set of written principles. But POET quickly moved from paper to reality.

Alice Sampson, a sixth-grade Oglethorpe Middle School science teacher, now shares her practical classroom knowledge with UGA teachers-in-training through hands-on activities and invitations to observe her actual classes well before they have to student teach. The exchange introduces young teachers to the realities of classroom management.

"I was blown away when I taught a lab at UGA one day and at the end of the activity the college students cleaned up everything, sat down and started reading the newspaper" Sampson recalled. "I said, You can't do that! I've got to show you what really happens. Go get all your stuff and put it back in the middle of the table and start talking.'"

Without practical preservice education like this, young teachers are easily shocked by the behavioral challenges, Sampson said.

POET also has kindled much-needed dialogue among colleges, universities and their main clients --Georgia public schools --about how colleges and universities should prepare middle school teachers. Typically, education majors take science and math classes that are not designed specifically for them but instead for science and math majors. So how do future educators get the broad range of knowledge needed to teach 11- to 14-year-olds? It's often hit or miss, Padilla said.

UGA's College of Education, for example, is responsible for teaching teachers but not for teaching math and science.

"GIMS is trying to forge a partnership with the mathematicians and scientists on campus who teach those subjects" Padilla said. "What kind of science and math do public school teachers need to know and how can we tailor courses to fit those needs?"

The impact of POET on teacher education already is evident. It has been used by more than 20 Georgia colleges and universities to conduct needs assessments and begin revisions of their preservice teacher education programs.

But even with excellent preservice education, teachers are not automatic experts on everything when they receive their college degrees. Which means inservice education is critical, especially in math and science, where technology and its applications change on a daily basis.

When GIMS provided Sampson's school with several new computers, inservice training was provided on how to use them.

Outside the schools, teachers can participate in programs such as the Georgia Internship Fellowship for Teachers (GIFT), headquartered at GIMS' Georgia Tech branch. The program combines a summer science- or math-related work experience in research or business with workshops plus formal and informal science networking throughout the year.

These teachers can then take what they've learned back to the classroom and their colleagues. Approximately 1,200 teachers have participated in professional development workshops led by teachers who took part in the GIFT summer program.

Lasting Partnerships

In addition to providing invigorating teacher training programs, GIMS is establishing lasting community partnerships that will continue the reform of math and science education in Georgia long after GIMS has ended.

"(GIMS' staff) are always inviting me to campus and introducing me to so many people and professional organizations that benefit my career and my students" Sampson said.

For example, Sampson and her fellow teachers met a UGA microbiologist who wants to introduce the Internet to 80 students at Oglethorpe Middle School for a research project of his own. This type of networking is precisely why GIMS seeks to establish long-term working relationships between public schools, colleges, universities and businesses.

The GIMS-initiated "System of Support" fosters such community partnership efforts. Relationships with several public and private corporations --including Georgia Public Television, Exxon Corporation and the Georgia Power Company --have enabled GIMS to pilot the latest technologies in interactive distance learning and provide professional development for 750 teachers statewide.

Does it Work?

Georgia is among 25 states selected for NSF's unorthodox program to revamp science and math education across the country. Rather than give grants to support individual programs, like POET, NSF decided to risk large block grants to spark creative change.

But are student achievements in math and science really improving in the state?

Because GIMS is, in essence, an out-of-lab experiment, assessment is a challenge. In part, this is due to the large numbers of people involved in and affected by the program.

As of 1995, more than a quarter of a million students from 225 of Georgia's 281 middle schools have been touched by the program. And that's just the middle schools. More than 100,000 elementary school students and 150,000 high school students also have been directly or indirectly involved in the GIMS project.

Adding to the assessment problem is testing. For example, the state's Curriculum Based Assessment (CBA) scores in middle schools showed some improvement in selected GIMS Professional Development Schools between 1992 and 1994. But the tests are designed to assess the state's Quality Core Curriculum; and the tests do not break down individual results for race, gender or GIMS-intensive classrooms.

"It is frustrating, because the National Science Foundation would like to have more data, for instance, related to the achievement gap in science and mathematics between minority and non-minority students" GIMS evaluator Charlie Martin said. "But through the CBAs we can't identify particular classrooms much less particular students."

Martin said he is trying to work around this problem by identifying large minority population schools that have high GIMS involvement.

"If there's a big leap in test scores in those schools compared to non-GIMS schools with a high minority population, that is a measurable result" he said. "But one of the difficulties is that you might have a school that has moderate involvement with GIMS school-wide, but within that school there may be three or four teachers who have been intensively involved.

"If we could get information and data about those particular classrooms we could more adequately describe and learn what's going on and what GIMS' impact has been."

So Martin and his colleagues are pursuing a host of alternatives to measure GIMS' real impact across the state.

For instance in Clarke County, where the learning framework is being adapted for science education, UGA graduate students have attended all of the planning meetings and are closely following the adoption process.

Some assessment is purely anecdotal. Researchers are continually gathering field observations from the teachers who use GIMS programs every day.

This observational data is in many ways the most telling, Martin said.

"In observing each other, teachers tell us things like, This is the kind of unexciting things the kids were doing two years ago, and now things are different. The students are engaged, excited. They are doing real science and math,' he said.

The best part of GIMS is that it's an easy program to work with, Sampson said. "There is very little paper work --and that's a big thing. But most importantly we have been able to pick and choose what aspects of the program are right for our school," she said.

For example, teachers at Oglethorpe Middle School were able to identify the needs of their school then turn to GIMS for much of the instructional and financial support to meet those specific goals.

"We encourage teachers and administrators to decide what needs to be done from their professional perspective," Padilla said.

Extensive assessment of GIMS may not be fully possible for 10 or more years. It will take that long for a full generation of students to go from elementary to high school.

"By the year 2000, it will be easier to see the evidence of our success or failure" Padilla said. "But indications point to real change."


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