Professor Creates Cyberspace Lesson Plans for Science Teachers

Release Date: March 26, 2008

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Cyberspace lesson plans developed by Randy Yerrick are helping teachers across the state bring technology like podcasting and movie-making into their classrooms.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Teacher Julianne Chamberlin's eighth-grade physical science class is as fun as it is informative. For proof, just check her Web site.

Chamberlin has adopted educational methods developed by Randy Yerrick, professor and associate dean of educational technology in the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education. Using examples of effective teaching known as "inquiry learning" as a kind of cyberspace lesson plan, Yerrick has merged proven classroom methods with state-of-the-art technology, including podcasting, movie-making and digital photography.

And Yerrick has taken the extra step to make these teaching tools as accessible as possible -- for teachers and students. His podcasts of teaching methods demonstrated in actual classrooms are posted on iTunes, the network available free for anyone who has ever downloaded a song for 99 cents on an iPod.

Chamberlin, who teaches at Clarence Middle School in suburban Buffalo, is one of dozens of teachers in New York State alone using Yerrick's methods. Examples include iMovies on heat transfer, a podcast on force and motion, and an online slide show of students recording changes about proportions. In addition to providing the content of the lessons, Yerrick taught Chamberlin how to videotape them with her students, edit them and add sound. To view their work, go to http://web.mac.com/ubscience.

"The effect is tremendous," says Chamberlin. "They're learning problem-solving and teamwork. They're finding ways to communicate what they've learned as well, and they retain the concepts longer. Their behavior is not an issue, and that's tough sometimes for eighth grade."

How science lessons are taught is just as important as their content. And that's where Yerrick's ability to bridge the gap between successful teaching methods and the technology familiar to the average person under 20 makes its mark.

"The difference is that we are working to transform the traditional classroom with these tools from 'telling,' to having students 'contribute to,' the study of science," says Yerrick. "We have captured some ways that teachers can get kids to be engaged in this process so that other teachers can envision their classrooms differently."

Yerrick's system comes at a time when the need to improve the way American schools teach science has never been greater. The push to improve basic reading and math skills in American schools has knocked science education off the radar screen when the country desperately needs students equipped to live in a science-dominated world, according to Yerrick. His methods are intended as nothing less than a way to bridge this gap.

"When kids are actively involved in learning scientific knowledge in classrooms," Yerrick notes, "they learn more, retain it longer and find it's more useful in their lives."

He says the research on whether technology actually improves student achievement as measured by test scores is still inconclusive. The goal is to draw kids into their classes, raising their engagement and interest in science. The real evidence, Yerrick says, is watching the transformation that goes on in the classrooms.

"Kids become contributors," he adds. "Teachers honor children's questions more.  Kids want to share their work."

Yerrick invites those interested to check out the classroom videos available at http://ubscience.net and http://web.mac.com/buffaloscience/. Included are videos of teaching methods, as well as student and teacher reflections of their work. The outreach Web sites and iTunes-U repository are among numerous venues made available through digital media for sharing teacher expertise.

Chamberlin would love to make Yerrick's methods a permanent part of her classroom. "Right now we're one of several classrooms borrowing Prof. Yerrick's digital video equipment until our school orders our own," she says. "The students are taking pictures, collecting data, analyzing their results, and then the kids put it all together to show a reflection of what they've learned and how they've learned it, add personal touches with music or more pictures, and share it with others."

There are plenty of podcasts showing fascinating science available on the Internet, says Yerrick. NASA posts engaging videos on the history of galaxies and studies of solar flares from their satellites, for example. But there is a big difference between delivering accurate science information and being thoughtful about science learning.

"Science is in the business of creating and testing scientific theories," he says. "Science education is all about how these are taught and learned in the classroom."

The techniques and practices for outstanding science teaching exist. The important part is for educational training institutions such as UB's Graduate School of Education to show their teachers-in-training how to do their jobs better, and to reach as many teachers as possible, Yerrick says.

"One way is to teach this in a class with 30 students," says Yerrick. "Another way to share this kind of expertise is to take my 30 pre-service methods to the field and show them with real kids. This way I can have hundreds of students see it on their iPod whenever they have time. And they can also look at it for years to come."

Yerrick, who joined UB's faculty in the fall of 2006 and previously was at San Diego State University, says his delivery system for training science teachers comes at a time national studies show students in fourth grade routinely fail to improve their understanding of science by eighth grade, and in some cases fall father behind before graduation. And many of the best science students enter the U.S. university system from other countries, and then leave, Yerrick says. "We're exporting that kind of knowledge in a technology-based economy. The handwriting is on the wall with regard to how it will affect our nation's economy."

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system, and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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