Environmental Factor, August 2008, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Promoting Hands-on Science in Texas Schools
By Eddy Ball
NIEHS Grantee Nancy Moreno, Ph.D., delivered an encouraging message to the small, but enthusiastic group of employees and visitors gathered in Rodbell Auditorium on July 2. Her talk on "Environmental Health Partnerships to Improve Science Education" outlined the ways innovation and collaboration have sparked hands-on scientific inquiry across the curriculum in projects in Texas public schools and fostered the involvement of scientists in educating the next generation of citizens. The event was hosted by NIEHS Program Analyst Liam O'Fallon.
Moreno is a professor of Allied Health Sciences and the senior associate director of the Center for Educational Outreach (http://www.ccitonline.org/ceo/) at the Baylor College of Medicine (BCM). She has been a principal investigator with NIEHS-funded science education programs since they were first funded in 1994. Although the Center now also receives funding from other sources, Moreno credits "the leadership role of NIEHS nationally and within the National Institutes of Health [for] supporting K-12 science education in very innovative ways and creating an environment in which projects and project staff really can thrive."
That leadership from NIEHS has encouraged the development of what is now a comprehensive set of programs built upon the long-term partnerships between BCM and schools in the Houston Independent School District. Because recent NIEHS funding for Baylor's Environment as a Context for Opportunities in Schools (ECOS) project has come in the form of seven-year Environmental Health Sciences as an Integrative Context for Learning (EHSIC) initiative grants, the programs have enjoyed the kind of continuity needed for extensive multi-year evaluation of outcomes.
During her lecture, Moreno described long-term partnerships between BCM and public schools and their shared vision as she presented results of multi-year evaluations of NIEHS-funded programs in public schools in Houston, Texas. Outcomes of the programs' work with elementary schools included measurements of performance on state examinations, teacher and student content knowledge, science-related language arts and teacher-student interaction.
The BCM team's comparison of pre- and post-program results showed how effective an integrated, inquiry-based approach to science education can be for students and teachers - even in schools, like Houston's, that are challenged by economic disparity and high turnover. Hispanic students in particular showed benefits from involvement in the project.
"We have a network of seven magnet high schools, career pathway programs for students and teaching resources," Moreno explained. "We work with about 200 to 400 teachers a year in professional development, ranging from one-day workshops to programs that last up to two years." Three of the high schools, she added with pride, are in the top 100 in the United States.
According to Moreno, co-planning and higher education partnerships with K-12 schools benefit everyone from students and teachers to people from every segment of society. These collaborations give students more opportunity and motivation to enter science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers, and they contribute to improved public understanding of the nature of science.
BCM offers an extensive web-based resource center for teachers at a site called BioEd Online (http://www.bioedonline.org/) . To date, Moreno reported, the web site has had more than 1.2 million visitors who have downloaded more than 10,200 documents in pdf format.
In the future, with the help of an administrative supplement from NIEHS to convert and post all of its materials, BioEd Online will offer even more for teachers everywhere, according to Moreno. It is important to find more ways to share up-to-date science with a larger audience to provide what she called "just-in-time professional development for teachers." Along with its constantly expanding library of teaching materials, course plans, streaming video and slide sets available free, the site offers virtual workshops, symposia, demonstrations and a teacher certification program.
BCM is currently developing an undergraduate course on genetics and genomics that will be completely free. The course will also be what Moreno described as "asynchronous," allowing people to participate from anywhere in the world at any time and progress at their own speed.
A Tangible Sign of Success - Buy-in for Baylor College of Medicine's Programs by the Educational Establishment
In the world of education, pilot programs can come and go, sometimes because they reflect the pedagogical fads of the day that later go out of favor or because they simply are not cost-effective. The BCM Center's programs, however, have achieved the kind of staying power and establishment buy-in that many programs never enjoy. Two developments in Houston testify to the future of Baylor College of Medicine's programs:
- District principals put money on the line. Witnessing the benefits of the ECOS project, principals offered to pay for the curriculum in their schools.
- The Houston Independent School District was so impressed with results from the ECOS project and related teacher professional development programs that administrators have offered a contract to Baylor College of Medicine to make BCM the principal elementary science partner for the district.