Fermilab Receives Grant for Science Education Pilot Project

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Batavia, IL-Officials at the Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory announced today (December 11) that the nonprofit organization Friends of Fermilab has received a $143,000 grant from the Illinois State Board of Education. Under the terms of a cooperative agreement with Friends of Fermilab, the Laboratory ‘s Education Office will conduct a four-year pilot program to improve high school science education in Illinois. During the program, based at Fermilab, teams of teachers from nine Illinois high schools will work together to develop “coherent, inquiry based high-school science curricula and implement a three-year sequence of science courses in their respective schools,” according to Marjorie Bardeen, manager of Fermilab’s Lederman Science Education Center.

“It’s an experiment,” Bardeen said. “At the end of the project, we will report on seven case studies, one from each school team, documenting on how schools apply the science curricula they devise.” The program supports systemic reform as called for in state and national reform efforts. Illinois has recently adopted state science education standards based on the National Science Education Standards developed by the National Academy of Science.

Gwen Pollock, science consultant to the Illinois State Board of Education and the grant’s monitor, expressed high expectations for the project. “I was a high school science teacher for 18 years,” she said. “All science teachers know that the right thing to do is to work together in teaching an integrated science curriculum in high school. Yet it is hard to do, in practice. This pilot project has the potential to move beyond the status quo and break the traditional boundaries between science courses to improve science education in Illinois.”

Project leaders chose the high schools who will participate in the pilot program to represent the diversity of Illinois schools, including urban, suburban and small rural districts. Participating schools include Best Practice High School and Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, of Chicago; Glenbard North High School, of Carol Stream; J.D. Darnall Senior High School, of Geneseo; Oak Park and River Forest High School, of Oak Park; Wayne City High School, of Wayne City; Galva High School, of Galva; Stark County High School, of Stark County; and Wethersfield High School, of Wethersfield. Teachers from the last three schools on the list will work as a team; each of the other schools will field a four-teacher team of its own to work on the project.

Teachers at an initial project workshop held at Fermilab on December 6, expressed cautious optimism about the project. “I want to see change,” said Mark Woods a teacher of geology and earth science at Oak Park River Forest High School. “I am excited about this pilot, but at the same time I am apprehensive that it will be just one more program where we start something and then nothing happens.” Woods said he believed the commitment from the State Board of Education was critical to the project’s success. Woods’ colleague, chemistry teacher Marlene Rubinow, agreed. “The funding is crucial,” she said. “But it’s even more the philosophical commitment from school administrators and the community that will allow us to make changes to improve science teaching.” Several teachers at the workshop reported that although their schools differed markedly, they found they had the same hopes and concerns for science education as teachers from the other schools.

Throughout the project, a team of outside science education experts will evaluate the results of the changes implemented at the schools to determine whether students are learning more effectively than before. Although the goals of the pilot program are uniform, and all teams will work within the framework of the newly issued Illinois state standards, Bardeen said, “each school will do something different, according to individual circumstances. The teachers who have agreed to take part in this experiment are making a tremendous commitment. It’s a lot of work.”

Fermilab is a national laboratory for research in particle physics. It is operated by Universities Research Association, Inc., under contract with the U.S. Department of Energy.