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Science-education Experiment to Expire

published: 02/20/2001
posted to site: 02/22/2001

Science-education Experiment to Expire

by Katherine Long, Editor, Times School Guide

Seattle Times , Tuesday, February 20, 2001,

In Stephanie Engel's fourth-grade class at Maple Elementary in South Seattle, science lessons no longer come out of a book.

They come out of a box. And this month, the box contained all the tools her students needed to investigate substances found in foods.

Does peanut butter contain starch? What about flour? Using simple tools, the fourth-graders measured and counted, stirred and watched as iodine was dripped on a grain of rice or a bit of egg white.

This hands-on approach is part of a systemwide revolution in elementary science teaching in Seattle schools, made possible by a $4.25 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

This is the final year of the grant, which pays for what's called the Inquiry-Based Science Program.

And even as outside observers praise Seattle for running a smart, well-organized program, they wonder if the district will have the political and financial will to keep it going.

"That's the big question," said Mark St. John, founder and president of Inverness Research, an independent evaluation company hired by the NFS to examine the success of Seattle's program and others like it. "It will come down to will. It takes resources and commitment. That's a choice of district leadership."

His concern is echoed by Dr. Lee Hood, a prominent scientist formerly of the University of Washington and now head of Seattle's Institute for Systems Biology. It was Hood who, with his wife, Valerie Logan, helped Seattle win the NSF grant five years ago.

"What is Seattle going to do to make sure this program continues?" Hood asked. "The heart of this program is whether it's sustainable. Everything else is a footnote."

The district says its commitment to the program extends well beyond next year. There's ongoing funding for nine science-resource teachers, who train the teachers how to teach elementary science, said chief academic officer June Rimmer. There are plans to find a permanent home for the district's science-resource center, which develops, packages and replenishes the science kits.

The district has won a second round of NSF funding to expand inquiry-based science into middle school. And it has hired an administrator to work on a plan to bring inquiry-based science into high schools.

"I am such a firm believer that we have got to escalate what we do in science," Rimmer said. The inquiry-based program has been "such a wonderful example of engaging students' natural creativity, and learning through inquiry."

A few years ago, science in Seattle elementary schools might mean a few weeks of study on dinosaurs or a trip to the Burke Museum, said Elaine Woo, director of the program. Most elementary teachers didn't have a strong science background, and there was no districtwide curriculum.

Today, students in nearly every Seattle elementary classroom conduct science investigations using tools of the profession. They start in kindergarten, examining the properties of wood; by fifth grade, they are using microscopes to describe cell structure and discover which single-celled organisms are commonly present in hay and grass.

The focus of any one unit is relatively narrow, but the lessons learned are large.

"We told teachers, `You have to teach less, but teach more in detail,' " said Eleanor Weisenbach, a former Seattle principal who retired last year after launching the program at Maple Elementary.

"One of the things I love about it is that it makes students think," Weisenbach said. "It asks them to explain their reasoning, and that's great practice for the fourth-grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning."

Hood, an internationally known professor of molecular biotechnology, said the program's design rests on two foundations of science: learning how to ask questions and think analytically, and teaching students how to do scientific investigations with their own two hands.

About 94 percent of the district's elementary-school teachers are participating in the program, which requires 100 hours of science training, Woo said. All 71 elementary schools are using the program.

Each grade studies three subjects, or units, every year. Teachers get a kit, packaged by the district's science-materials resource center, with everything they need for the scripted experiments.

Science-resource teachers, who have been assisted by 500 working scientists over the past five years, have trained teachers how to ask their students questions that help them focus on things they might have otherwise missed, said Kathryn Show, a science-resource teacher for the district.

Many elements have combined to make the program a success. For example, every student takes at least one field trip a year that's directly related to one of the science units. Parents get to do the same types of experiments their children are doing during parent nights at the schools.

A science-resource center replenishes and repackages the science kits, so teachers never have to scramble to come up with raw materials. And working scientists in the community teach the teachers about the science behind the experiments.

The program has had many other benefits. Because they write about what they do in a science notebook, students are flexing their writing muscles and learning the language of science at the same time. The district has received an $85,000 grant from the Stuart Foundation, a private group, to develop the writing portion of the program.

"It's made a huge impact on the curriculum in other areas," said Jean Anthony, Bailey Gatzert Elementary principal.

It was a sign of success at Bailey Gatzert when a student used the word "luster" in a creative-writing exercise. "Luster" was a word students learned a week earlier to describe the properties of rocks and minerals, Anthony said.

Last week in her fourth-grade class at Maple Elementary, Engel began a series of rapid-fire questions designed to make students think about what the starch-in-food experiment meant. She was also trying to get them to think about the scientific method - and what it means when an experiment appears to be giving contradictory results.

Why, for example, did some groups of students find starch in peanut butter, and others did not?

"Maybe they didn't follow procedures," suggested student Ceferino Deloy.

Engel beamed. "Nice use of that word," she said.

The National Science Foundation has funded 68 inquiry-based programs in cities around the country, said St. John, the independent evaluator. Of the six programs he's studied, Seattle has done "quite well."

"One thing I must say about Seattle is that there are extraordinary resources in the community," he said. Seattle's inquiry-based program partners with the UW, Boeing and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. It's also gotten support from many of the area's biotechnology firms

Whether the district can harness and organize those resources is one of the unanswered questions. "There is enormous potential," St. John said.