Oct. 12, 2006
By Mary Reed
It's a hot summer day and Tom Stork is on vacation from his job as a science teacher at Athens High School. But rather than lying on the beach or working in the garden, Stork is sitting in a nearly-empty conference room at Ohio University's Clippinger Laboratories along with Mark Lucas, associate professor of physics. The two men are working diligently on a computerized tutorial program that is designed to help Ohio high school students pass the science portion of the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT).
With only 72.6 percent of Ohio tenth graders testing proficient or above on the science portion of the OGT in 2006, Stork and Lucas – along with their team of Athens High School science teachers – are eager to launch their online tutorial this fall.
This venture is just one of nearly a dozen math and science education projects designed over the last year by Collaborative Study Investigation teams throughout southeast Ohio. These CSI teams, which include public school teachers and at least one university faculty member, have created school-based investigations into issues related to math and science in their schools.
The CSI teams are at the core of the mission of the Southeast Ohio Center for Excellence in Mathematics and Science (SEOCEMS), a regional center created to help improve K-16 mathematics and science teaching and learning.
"Kids ask, 'When are we ever going to use this stuff? How does it affect me? How will I use this with the kind of job I'm going to get?'" That's Ralph Martin, co-director of SEOCEMS and professor of teacher education at Ohio University. He says these attitudes are often based in poverty, tight school budgets and isolation – the very challenges facing math and science teachers in rural southeast Ohio. "The teachers are doing the best they can and we do have pockets of excellence. But many teachers are very isolated and they may lack special leadership expertise that's specific to math and science."
This is where SEOCEMS comes in. Funded by the Ohio Board of Regents, SEOCEMS is a collaboration between Ohio University's College of Education, the University of Rio Grande and Rio Grande Community College, Shawnee State University and members of the Coalition of Rural and Appalachian Schools. It is one of six such centers throughout Ohio.
Specifically, SEOCEMS has laid out five areas where it wants to make an impact in improving K-16 mathematics and science in the state and region: 1) professional development for teachers, 2) pupil access to quality math and science, 3) teacher preparation programs, 4) applied research and evaluation focused in rural Appalachia and 5) recruitment and retention of teachers and faculty dedicated to math and science teacher education.
Stork, who is also chair of the science department at Athens High School, says SEOCEMS is exactly what has allowed his faculty to work toward the greater goal of improving high school science education. "SEOCEMS provided stipends and support for professional development days. People in the whole department could meet and realign the curriculum."
Now, after more than a year of collaboration, the Athens High School CSI team will soon launch their online tutorial. It is poised to have a great impact on how science can be delivered to Ohio high school students at an individualized level and rate. Using an open-source, Web-based course management system called LON-CAPA (similar to the better-known BlackBoard program), the tutorial gives students a chance to work on sophisticated homework problems that allow them to work and rework multi-step problems until they get the right answers. Unlike the old days, students get immediate feedback on whether they are answering homework questions correctly.
"The opportunity to fail is one of the most important things in learning – and failing without chagrin," says Stork, who along with four of his colleagues at Athens High uses LON-CAPA in his class. The teachers have developed questions that reflect the benchmarks from the Ohio science content standards. Team members plan to present their work at the eTech Ohio Conference next year.
The CSI teams identify and pursue research questions specific to their own schools, so there are as many investigations in the works as there are teams – that's nearly a dozen now. Teams present their progress or conclusions at the SEOCEMS annual conference.
For example, Shawnee State University and Northwest High School teamed up to evaluate block scheduling, a type of school schedule that has four class periods a day instead of eight, allowing for more time per class to learn and study a subject. Administrators were considering eliminating block scheduling at Northwest and teachers were concerned that it might negatively impact math and science learning. So they launched an investigation into block scheduling that included a literature review, faculty and student surveys, and compiling attendance and honor roll records.
Eliminating the block schedule never happened. "The faculty did a really good job," says Phil Blau, assistant professor of mathematics at Shawnee, who served as the university faculty liaison to the team. He gives the teachers and SEOCEMS the credit for making the project happen. "I don't think in any way would the teachers have thought to prepare a report about block scheduling without SEOCEMS soliciting that."
But the resource and information sharing is going both ways. "The CSI teams are doing their own research, so we're learning from their findings," SEOCEMS co-director Martin says. "These teams are providing fertile ground for university researchers."
For example, a CSI team made up of Jackson High School and Ohio University faculty is looking at the use of technology to teach math. They are studying if student communication is enhanced through using the TI Navigator system, which provides real-time, wireless communication between students' graphing calculators and the teacher's PC.
The original research question wanted to know if students would ask more questions of the teacher if they were using the new high-tech system. Interestingly, a second research question emerged as the technology was adopted. Laura Moss, assistant professor at mathematics at Ohio University, began to track how and when teachers adopted the TI Navigator system. Using the "diffusions of innovation" model, Moss was able to identify teachers as "early adopters" to "laggards" and everything in between.
The Jackson High School teachers are still finding ways to use the TI Navigator technology to enhance the curriculum. For example, the CSI team developed a lesson patterned after the old board game Battleship. In the new version, students graph coordinates and write equations for the lines that pass through their individual submarines and the classroom battleship.
"What technology can do is that it can bring certain concepts new life," Moss says. "It creates an enthusiasm for the topic that wasn't there without technology."
This use of technology reflects one reason the Ohio Board of Regents helped launch these Centers for Excellence in Math and Science – as a way to prepare students for high-tech business employment in a state whose economy is moving away from manufacturing and toward high tech.
"If I had a dream," Martin says, "it would be that we could build such synergy and enthusiasm and build a talent pool in southeast Ohio that would be the basis for economic change." He likens this to California's Silicon Valley, but tailors it to southeast Ohio's coal mining past. "Maybe we'll call it the Black Diamond Valley."
Mary Reed is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.