Survival of the fittest: Local science programs have fans and foes

For the People…around Chicago

Medill Reports on what’s working and what’s not

by Catherine Guiles

Norman Lederman, chairman of the math and science education department at the Illinois Institute of Technology, reviewed part of a popular biology textbook, but he doesn’t use it in the Chicago high school classes he helped develop.

Instead, IIT’s instructional development system for Chicago’s High School Transformation Plan uses texts published by Glencoe because they were already the most commonly used by city teachers. Since the HST’s beginning two years ago, 11 out of 25 participating schools have picked IIT, making it the most popular.

“Independent of whether we’re good or not,” IIT would get the most participants because teachers already know much of the materials, Lederman said. “The reports we’re getting from teachers is that students are enjoying science more. I know teachers are enjoying teaching it more” because students respond better.

Ironically, the book Lederman worked on – published by the Biological Curriculum Sciences Study (BSCS) – is used in the other two IDSs in High School Transformation: one run by the Meaningful Science Consortium, based at Northwestern University, and the other run jointly by Loyola University Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Seven schools have picked MSC and seven have chosen Loyola/UIC.

The science programs are part of a Chicago Public Schools effort, funded in part by $21 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to revamp math, science and English teaching at neighborhood schools, small schools, charter schools and military academies, primarily on the south and west sides. High School Transformation aims to get more students to stay in school, perform well on state and college-entrance tests and go on to higher education by providing more rigorous, uniform curriculum that is aligned with Illinois standards; making subject matter more interesting and relevant; and giving teachers intensive coaching and schools an array of supplies and technology.

Students take three formative assessments throughout the year in each subject and a cumulative test at the end of the year. Twenty-five schools have been in the program since it began in 2006, and 24 are slated to join next year. (Mose Vines Preparatory Academy, one of the original cohort, was closed under a “turnaround” plan approved by CPS in February and will reopen this fall as part of the reconsolidated Orr Academy High School, which will also be in High School Transformation.)

All three science IDSs say they are “inquiry-based,” meaning they want students to learn by asking questions and taking initiative to find the answers based on limited initial information, as opposed to having teachers give them the solutions.

“There’s some natural phenomenon or experience that’s happened,” and students begin the process of sorting out what went on, said Patrick Daubenmire, a chemistry instructor at Loyola and lead manager of the Loyola/UIC IDS. For example, in chemistry, “Here’s this mucky, murky water that the teacher sets on the desk. How do we make it clean water?”

To solve that problem, Daubenmire said, students use the “Five E’s”: engage, explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate.

The science programs all also place a heavy emphasis on group work, writing and reading and less emphasis on memorization. But they differ in terms of course sequences, philosophical approach and outside partners.

The Meaningful Science Consortium broke with the traditional CPS science sequence of biology in ninth grade, chemistry in 10th grade and physics in 11th grade. Loyola/UIC and IIT use that order, but MSC students take environmental science in ninth grade, half a year of chemistry and half a year of physics in 10th grade, and biology in 11th grade. (According to a policy adopted in 2006 by the CPS Board of Education, to graduate, students need to take one credit of biology and two credits that can come from any combination of chemistry, earth and space science, environmental science and physics.)

MSC also notably focuses mainly on teaching students through doing projects, learning scientific concepts along the way. At a recent presentation at Northwestern, students shared their ideas for playing sports on the moon (physics), learning the periodic table of the elements through a board game (chemistry), and building an alternative-energy plant (environmental science).

“The energy sources have cons,” said Erica Howell, a 14-year-old freshman at Kenwood Academy. “That has to be taken into consideration.” Her group members went with solar power because they were concerned that nuclear energy would kill fish.

Critics of project instruction call it “fluffy,” said Steven McGee, a research associate professor at Northwestern and director of the MSC. But he said it can be as challenging as other approaches.

“It actually brings the rigor of a real-world setting to the classroom,” he said. “What [traditionally] goes for ‘rigor’ doesn’t really, truly educate students.”

But projects and lab experiments aren’t totally excluded from the other transformation schools.

“I love to do hands-on activities,” said Linda Thomas, a biology teacher at Dyett High School, part of the Loyola/UIC IDS. “[Students] really do tune you out after five or ten minutes.”

She said she would like to add dissections of frogs or fetal pigs next year but was glad her students got to look at sheep’s brains.

One of Thomas’ students, 16-year-old freshman Keith Plummer, said he learned about genetics by working with a classmate to “draw a baby” with various inherited traits.

Teachers and coaches praised HST for supplying them with all the materials they need and then some.

“Teachers are always looking for new things,” said Bill Smith, a teacher at Bowen Environmental Studies Team (BEST) High School, which uses MSC. “It used to take most of the summer to get my stuff together, but now I check it off.”

ITT schools get classroom visits from scientists at the Field Museum, which is a partner in the IDS.

On a recent Wednesday, Field botanist Matt vonKonrat told a chemistry class at the Chicago Military Academy – Bronzeville about his research involving liverworts, “the most primitive land plants still alive today.”

The plant got its name because it resembles the liver, and people mistakenly thought it would help that organ, he said.
“It might poison the liver, but it certainly doesn’t cure it at all,” vonKonrat said.

Even though his background is in biology, vonKonrat tied his presentation to chemistry by explaining that plants are used for food, clothing, shelter and medicines, which “all have a chemical component.”

IIT also differs in its emphasis on what Lederman called “the nature of science,” getting students to understand the philosophy behind science and how it affects what research gets done and what ideas gain acceptance.

It “goes across all the sciences – all tentative, subject to change, involve human creativity, inherently subjective,” Lederman said.

As High School Transformation moves into its third year and the students who started out as ninth-graders take the Prairie State Achievement Exam and ACT, those involved said some things will likely change, based on needs that have arisen.

One thing that MSC didn’t expect was the level of support that would be needed for teachers, particularly those with less than five years experience, McGee said.

Some teachers have had difficulty adjusting to the intensity and fast pacing of the lessons, said Yolanda Garcia, an IIT coach and former longtime science teacher.

“I don’t think we went this fast when I was in biology,” Garcia said. “We learn what we can’t spend time on. We know that we have so many days for each topic, and then we move on. My job is to keep a certain pace.”

In MSC, “we didn’t have to chop units,” McGee said. “We just dropped lessons here and there.”

An inquiry-based class “takes some background work and preparation” that wasn’t there before, namely doing more labs and setting them up, Daubenmire said. “Teachers often comment that it’s challenging for them,” but they acknowledge that students like it.

A related issue is how to meet the needs of special education students, who make up between a fifth and a third of the population of many IDS schools. All three programs have instructions on how to make modifications for them, as well as for students who are learning English.

Some teachers use “storyboards, draw what they’re going to do instead of write,” Daubenmire said. “We wouldn’t change the structure or the inquiry cycle” for special populations because there are “core things” that no student should miss.

When it comes to taking tests, “if it’s in their [Individualized Education Plan], then the test and everything is adjusted,” Garcia said.

Special education teachers in science also participate in coaching. But CPS will pay for a special-populations liaison for each IDS next year to provide additional support.

Despite the challenges, at least one student is finding science more relevant.
Raymond Solomon, 18, is a junior at the South Shore School of the Arts, part of Meaningful Science. His teacher “explains it well and makes it easy for us even though it’s supposed to be a hard class,” he said.

And it paid off: “This is the first science class I’ve gotten good grades.”

This site is a product of: Medill Reports: Chicago