Making Science Exciting: $9.8 Million Program Aims to Change How Science is Taught in Buffalo Schools

Centerpiece of program is more support for teachers, who will receive professional development opportunities including the chance to conduct research with area scientists

Release Date: October 12, 2011

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Announcement a new program for Buffalo public schools brought together, from left, Buffalo State College Associate Professor Dan MacIsaac, Mark Mortenson, CEO, Buffalo Museum of Science, UB Professor Joe Gardella and UB President Satish Tripathi.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A coalition of regional partners has received $9.8 million from the National Science Foundation to expand a promising, teacher-focused initiative that aims to change how science is taught in Buffalo Public Schools.

The five-year program, led by the University at Buffalo, Buffalo Public Schools, Buffalo State College and the Buffalo Museum of Science, is called the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership (ISEP).

The big idea behind the initiative is to throw the community's diverse resources behind reforming science education, primarily by improving teachers' skills and knowledge.

A news conference was held to announce the initiative. Watch the video:

Through ISEP, science and math teachers at 12 middle and high schools in the Buffalo Public Schools district will receive a wealth of new professional development opportunities. Chief among them: the chance to spend a summer conducting interdisciplinary research with local scientists.

These experiences will encourage educators to add interdisciplinary content to lessons, and to devote more class time to activities like experiments that emphasize problem-solving. This approach to teaching makes science more exciting for students, challenging them to think broadly and arrive at answers on their own.

Throughout the school year, ISEP teachers will receive support and mentoring from professional learning communities that include fellow teachers, museum educators, Buffalo State College and UB faculty members, UB students, and local scientists and engineers.

Meeting weekly, these networks will give teachers a place to swap ideas and seek advice as they develop lesson plans emphasizing scientific inquiry and big-picture, interdisciplinary ideas.

Ultimately, the goal is to improve teacher retention and student success in a high-needs district where performance in science and math falls well below the state average. If it works, ISEP will raise the number of students finishing high school with an interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

"We want to use UB's strength in interdisciplinary research to influence the quality of education in public schools," said Joseph Gardella, ISEP project lead and John and Frances Larkin Professor of Chemistry at UB. "It's important to note that we're not only implementing the program, but studying what works and what doesn't as well. This is what a research university does. We're doing world-class research, and it's helping Buffalo."

Amber M. Dixon, interim superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools, said that because of the partnership among UB, Buffalo State and the Buffalo Museum of Science, "the children of the Buffalo Public Schools will be exposed to every opportunity in the field of science."

"The support that this NSF grant will lend to our educators and students is immeasurable in its long lasting effect on young lives," she said. "In our programs underway through the support of the Oishei Foundation, we can already see the difference these collaborations in learning and teaching make in young lives.

"We can only imagine that we are honing the scientists of the future right here in our schools."

In addition to the four core partners, organizations supporting ISEP include Praxair Inc., Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute, the Western New York Service-Learning Coalition and the Buffalo Public Schools District Parent Coordinating Council. Pilot funding for the program came from a $485,000 grant from the John R. Oishei Foundation.

Buffalo State College President Aaron Podolefsky, Buffalo Museum of Science CEO Mark Mortenson and leaders from other ISEP partners offered their support for the project:

Each ISEP partner will play a critical role, providing staff and facilities for projects ranging from research experiences for teachers to after-school programs for students. Roswell Park and Hauptman-Woodward will serve as state-of-the-art professional development venues, for instance.

"What's amazing about this partnership is the collaboration, the willingness of people to really step up and contribute to a difficult project," Gardella added. "Instead of going it alone, each participating institution is taking its particular strengths and applying them toward a larger goal."

Every year for five years, ISEP will reach a total of 48 teachers, starting with educators at seven schools and branching out later to include a dozen schools. The program takes a pipeline approach, targeting K-8 "feeder" schools and the high schools those feeder schools' graduates attend.

Gardella and colleagues launched the program in 2005 at the Native American Magnet School in Buffalo. Since then, thanks to the Oishei Foundation funding, the initiative has expanded to include East High School and the Math, Science and Technology Preparatory School at Seneca (Seneca MST).

Successes so far are anecdotal: Teachers at all three pilot schools have worked with ISEP partners to develop interdisciplinary, inquiry-based curricula. Since 2007, students in ISEP classrooms at the Native American Magnet School have been about 30 percent more likely than district peers to attain proficiency on the eighth grade state science exam.

The new $9.8 million grant will enable researchers in UB's Graduate School of Education to study ISEP in a more systematic way, using interviews with teachers, classroom observations and data from an independent evaluation team at the Miami University of Ohio to determine how well the program is working, and why.

Teachers selected to participate in ISEP may stay in the program for up to three years, receiving up to 780 hours of structured professional development.

In summer, the research institutes will engage teachers in cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research in three areas that UB identified as institutional strengths through the UB 2020 planning process: Integrated Nanostructured Systems; Molecular Recognition in Biological Systems and Bioinformatics; and Extreme Events: Mitigation and Response. Some participants will receive stipends to attend classes at Buffalo State College that complement research experiences.

During the school year, UB graduate students will serve as support to teachers in middle and high school classrooms. UB student volunteers will also staff after-school and weekend science clubs. The Buffalo Museum of Science will open its doors for family science nights and summer programs.

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