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Last modified: Tuesday, August 10, 2010

IU partnership prepares more teachers for project-based learning in math and science

Two summer workshops continue "Math Matters," start "Molecules Matter"

August 10, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Area science and math teachers are heading into classes this month with a better handle on project-based learning (PBL) thanks to an expanded partnership of Indiana University and business, community and education leaders.

Math Matters

Math and science teachers in southern Indiana took a turn at being students this summer. They learned how to better apply project-based learning techniques thanks to a partnership among IU and business, community and education leaders.

Print-Quality Photo

For the second straight year, mathematics teachers from across several counties in southern Indiana learned about applying PBL during "Math Matters," which concluded last month after a 10-day session at Columbus' Central Middle School. This year, a new workshop held on the IU Bloomington campus called "Molecules Matter" included a workshop for science teachers to develop PBL lesson plans.

Catherine Brown, professor of mathematics education at the IU School of Education, developed Math Matters with the support of "Economic Opportunities through Education by 2015," or EcO15 -- an initiative of business, education and community leaders to advance K-12 education in a 10-county area in southeastern Indiana. EcO15 covers Bartholomew, Dearborn, Decatur, Jackson, Jefferson, Jennings, Ohio, Ripley, Franklin and Switzerland counties.

After a successful program last summer, Brown connected with Jill Robinson, senior lecturer in the IU Department of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences to create Molecules Matter, funded by a grant from the Indiana Commission of Higher Education. The additional funding allowed Monroe County teachers to also attend the workshops.

"We thought it was a natural extension to bring project-based learning into the sciences as well," Robinson said. Robinson has worked with teachers on professional development programs including workshops to strengthen chemistry content knowledge, campus visits for teachers and students to experience cutting-edge facilities, as well as partnerships with schools.

The Molecules Matter sessions focused on nanoscience, the study of the phenomena and manipulation of materials at a very small or "nano" scale. The concept is very important for modern science applications in business development. "Nanoscience and the combination with project-based learning is something that many teachers would be interested in and could really charge up their classrooms," Robinson said.

With both Math Matters and Molecules Matter, teachers participated in 10 full days of sessions to learn PBL techniques from other teachers and IU faculty and staff. "At the end, they have not only their own project that they can use in their curriculum next year, but they've heard about a number of other projects that other teachers here have created, and they could be comfortable adapting to their own classroom setting," said Brown.

"The EcO15 group has seen the benefits of teachers being engaged in project-based learning, and they've seen the connection that the community has made to the schools." she also said.

EcO15 facilitator Bob Abrams noted the community partnerships that develop between teachers, students and businesses as a primary benefit of the PBL model. "We look at project-based learning as having a very important role to play in every state of education from K-12 through postsecondary," Abrams said, "particularly in regard to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses, which are key to the employers in our region."

Robinson said one important aspect of PBL in science is to help spark an interest for students who might not consider such a career otherwise. "We surveyed a class at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School last year," she said. "Before they did their nanoscience project, about 30 percent were interested in pursuing a STEM college degree and just after a two-week project it was up to 60 percent interested in pursuing that in the future."

Attendance for Math Matters increased 50 percent this year, with many of the teachers who participated in 2009 returning to further develop their lesson plans. More than half of the 71 participating teachers were from elementary grades. Many were getting their first exposure to PBL.

"Projects kind of scared me in the past because of their lack of structure," said Kevin Gill, math and social studies teacher at Edgewood Junior High School in Ellettsville. "But this really does have a lot of structure built into it. You've got the standards to support it, and you've got a bunch of different scaffolding (techniques to support teaching a new concept) you've created to make the project work, but also to make it effective."

Fourteen teachers from Bartholomew, Jefferson, Monroe and Switzerland counties participated in Molecules Matter. Workshop instructor and Columbus Signature Academy chemistry teacher Anna Kinsella emphasized the importance of the community partner aspect as a motivator for students. "The students really want to do this real-world task," Kinsella said. "They want to work with the business professionals, they want to impress the biomedical engineer who's coming in three weeks to hear the presentation a lot more than they might want to impress their teacher."

Brown said plans for at least two more years of the programs are underway, with the goal being to develop a core of seasoned PBL teachers in the participating school corporations. "The expectation will be that if somebody new comes into that building or school corporation and doesn't know project-based learning, they will work with their colleagues to develop their expertise," she said. "So this project-based use is sustainable in the school corporations that we're working with."

The teachers talk about their projects and organizers discuss the value of PBL in this short video that takes you inside the two workshops.