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Focus on Education

Blue Hill
Originally published in Castine Patriot, August 30, 2012 and The Weekly Packet, August 30, 2012
Science in the schools
Partnership with UMaine embraces “hands-on” learning for middle school

Focus on Education 2012 Archive
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by Anne Berleant

When there is only one science teacher in a small school, who is there to talk science with? Three Union 93 schools—Adams School in Castine, Blue Hill Consolidated School and Surry Elementary School—are addressing this and a whole lot more by joining the Maine Physical Sciences Partnership for 2012-13.

Maine PSP supports a hands-on science program for sixth- through ninth-graders by supplying materials, curriculum, teacher training and—of at least equal importance—a place for teachers to talk teaching science with each other.

“We’re really trying to create a community,” said Erika Allison, Maine PSP project director in a recent telephone interview.

Through a grant from the National Science Foundation, Maine PSP has partnered with 50 schools in 16 districts, with a goal of turning middle school students on to science, said Allison. The middle school grades are the “key years when kids either turn on or turn off from science.”

The program uses project-based, “hands-on” learning to cover the usual middle school science subjects.

“The biggest thing you’ll notice is that students are doing science instead of reading about it,” Allison said.

For example, when students learn about plate tectonics in sixth grade, instead of reading how the plates shift, students discuss how a government proposal to bury nuclear waste might be impacted by the shifting of the plates.

“All of a sudden it becomes a real-life application,” Allison said.

The science and engineering curriculum for eighth-graders uses a design cycle to teach force and motion, with students designing and testing vehicles, then redesigning to try to improve them.

“Students will learn … the only way to get to go fast is to reduce every bit of friction you can in the car,” Allison explained.

The goal is to make science more accessible to children, Allison said. “It’s not just for the interested child … it’s so children can feel science is a part of their world. It makes children feel science is something they can do.”

The grant runs through the 2014-15 school year, but that isn’t necessarily the end of the program.

“Over these five years, we’re trying to figure out what works well,” Allison said. “After the grant ends, [and] we’ve figured out what works, we roll it out statewide, nationwide.”

Rachael Kohrman Ramos, curriculum coordinator for Union 93, hopes to add Penobscot and Brooskville schools to Maine PSP in 2013-14. Scheduling conflicts kept their science teachers from attending the week-long training at Schoodic Educational Research Center in late June, a necessary part of joining the program.

“As someone who’s seen a lot of programs roll past me in 15 years, as a teacher … this is so beautifully laid out and research-based and explained. It’s one of the programs I’ve been most impressed with in my career,” Ramos said.

“This program takes all of the concerns of teachers and addresses them, from what I’ve seen and heard teachers say: not enough supplies, not being able to implement ideas because of lack of material or lack of storage space for materials. This program brings [materials] to you. When you’re done, they take them away and bring more to you.”

“Often we’re given a new national mandate and no training. This program trains teachers and pays them for the training,” Ramos concluded. “The program makes sure everyone is educated and on board before they proceed.”

BHCS science teacher Katie Danielson said she is looking forward to being part of a community of science teachers state-wide.

“You’re not just working in isolation,” she said when contacted by phone.

Danielson also said she is excited about teaching hands-on science projects to her classes.

“This program is really designed for all students,” she said. “Those who are struggling will feel successful—they’ll be able to contribute and participate.”

“It’s all about critical thinking,” said Allison, “… [and] tailoring what students are learning to how they think.”

With a “critical shortage” of students going into science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields, Allison said, Maine PSP wants to get students “really excited about science” and give them opportunities for success.

“If you have success in science, that’s the number one motivation to keep going,” Allison said.

More information on Maine PSP is available at umaine.edu/mainepsp.