November 1, 2002
Effective science and technology education is critical for urban youth. Disadvantaged urban schools face a host of challenges, including lack of resources, limited school leadership, and ineffective curricula, all of which impact negatively on science teaching and learning. Not only do many teachers leave inner-city districts for better-paying suburban systems, but also many of those who remain are not prepared to help students meet the new academic standards. The challenge of making relevant laboratory and inquiry skills is both daunting and difficult. In addition, while the much-discussed digital divide is far more than digital, basic access to computers and reliable Internet services is still an issue in under-served urban schools (EWA, 1999). According to the Nation's Science Report Card (NCES, 2001), students eligible for free and reduced lunch had lower scores on the 2000 NAEP science assessment than in 1996. In grades 4 and 8, students in central city locations had among the lowest scores. There is clearly much more to be done for urban science education reform, especially for minority and low-income students.
Yet the landscape is not entirely bleak. The EDC Center for Children and Technology (CCT) and Eastern Research Group (ERG) staff evaluated the impact of the JASON Project (www.jason.org) on students and teachers in the Philadelphia school district on two different occasions during the last three years (Ba, et al. 2001, Martin, et al., 2001, Duchnovnay, 1999). This article focuses on the results of these two evaluation studies in an attempt to shed light on tools and techniques that might contribute to science and technology teaching and learning within disadvantaged urban schools.
Results from the Philadelphia School District
The JASON Project in Philadelphia
In Philadelphia, nearly half the staff in the poorest schools turns over every two years. In addition, certification and professional development for middle school teachers is extremely limited (Eisner, 2001, p. 1, see also Useem, 2000). To address these challenges, the Philadelphia School District's Learning Technology Group and the National Science Foundation's Urban Systemic Initiative (USI) have focused on training and retaining middle school teachers. As part of this initiative, the JASON Project helps teachers and students develop science concepts and skills in a multimedia environment. The JASON Project is composed of a print curriculum that highlights researchers' fieldwork, a video that introduces a key topic; an online community with exercises, discussion groups, chats, and assessment tools, and a live two-week expedition broadcast that helps students experience a research expedition firsthand. In particular, these groups offered six intensive JASON Project professional development sessions and provided JASON Project's multimedia science curricula to teachers during the school year.
Teachers have integrated the JASON Project into Philadelphia schools during the last three years (1998-2001). During the 1998-99 school year, the JASON Project was first introduced into 10 schools (nearly a quarter of the district's 42 middle schools), reaching 15 teachers and 450 students. By 2001, this number had grown to 13 schools, which meant there were 40 teachers and 700 students participating in the project. Each participating classroom served either the seventh or eighth grade. The participating schools were located in various Philadelphia neighborhoods, but generally these schools serve economically disadvantaged communities that are predominantly African-American. Many students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and several schools are Title I schools. Standardized test scores, such as the SAT-9 standardized tests in math, reading, and science and the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test, are below average, although comparable to scores in the overall school district.
Participating JASON Schools
In 1999, ERG conducted focus groups and interviews with several participating schools. In 2001, CCT researchers led interviews and classroom observations, administered questionnaires and surveys, and conducted a pre- and post-inquiry test and a video assessment of students' science presentations at one middle school. The teachers and students participating in the CCT study are part of a special program targeted at students who had failed in the past or had behavior problems. As the assistant principal noted, since the students in his school have failed two or three times: "something that we're doing is not working (so) we tried putting together a program that will be better suited for them." Two experienced teachers team-teach and each spends a half of the school day with their students. They engage their students in extended activities with flexible schedules and use JASON activities all year long in all subjects. In the ERG-study participating schools many teachers team-taught JASON lessons, combining science lessons with their language-arts and social studies components, and integrated JASON lessons into existing activities. Interdisciplinary projects ranged from storybooks, response journals, and literature circles to rainforest murals and exhibition gardens with medicinal plant sales. For many teachers, JASON curricula provided a unifying theme that allowed teachers to integrate materials and training they had learned at other workshops and programs.
Student Excitement and Engagement
According to the teachers and administrators, JASON excites and engages students who have had low achievement scores by providing field trips, hands-on multimedia projects, and activities with tangible products. Field trips allow students to explore new environments. As one teacher explains: "Even just going down to the stream, taking a sample and testing it helps them feel good about that. The other week we did a netting to see what water is polluted and what's not, and that all fits in with the JASON Project and learning about the watersheds and water problems. Just getting them out of the building helps a lot. They like that."
Students that were previously observed walking constantly in and out of a classroom and often interrupting the teacher during class discussion were self-directed during JASON hands-on projects, seeking help from their teacher and other students. According to one teacher, her "group is more excited about doing the [JASON] projects than the kids last year (who were in a regular class). They're excited because they can accomplish things, because the reading and writing they can't do. With the activities they can learn more and contribute."
The combination of multimedia and inquiry-based learning is especially effective with students that may otherwise be difficult to reach academically. Another teacher explained how previously difficult students now are retaining more information and leading activities in the classroom: "There's something in there that will catch (students), even the student that maybe has no interest in school. There's something here for them and they'll find it. It may take them a little while, but there's a product produced, and they're proud of themselves when they do that."
To measure the impact of JASON on student learning, CCT administered a pre- and post-science inquiry test. On the inquiry test, students were presented with data on planets and had to solve several problems and answer questions about the data. CCT found that most students acquired scientific-inquiry and analytic skills, specifically argument building and data interpretation.
Making Science Real and Relevant for Students
Teachers explained that the JASON curriculum was easy to adapt to problem-based learning, a methodology that provides students with real-world problems. JASON materials showed students that many scientists' experiments are similar to activities that they do in the classroom and that researchers, like teachers, are also on a shoestring budget (i.e. a canopy biologist using plastic cups to build an "artificial bromeliad" experiment). This helped students take their work more seriously, validating field-based components that teachers were already doing with their classes.
These activities helped teachers and students make connections between expedition sites and their communities and made science learning relevant, especially for students who may otherwise be difficult to reach. As one teacher explains, "(JASON) gives them the life experiences that they wouldn't normally have the students have to go out there and work in the real world, so they have to know what careers are out there and how what you learn can apply to what you do in the future. Unfortunately today some schools focus so much on knowledge and comprehension questions that they forget the applied aspects of this type of learning. JASON brings in the applied learning."
Connecting students to the real world builds excitement for learning. Student enthusiasm was reflected in videotaped presentations that were part of CCT's school-wide evaluation. Student presentations covered topics about Hawaii such as volcano types, island formation, and native plants and animals. During these presentations, students consistently scored at and above average in three skill areas: critical thinking, scientific understanding, and communication.
Urban schools serving students from low-income communities are often overcrowded and lack resources and quality teachers. According to urban reformers, these ills can be healed with strong school leadership, professional development, and relevant curriculum integrated with a well-defined technology literacy program (EWA, 1999). Although it is a complex process and begs for a long-term stable reform agenda, urban schools can be improved.
Science and technology initiatives like the JASON Project and the National Science Foundation's Urban Systemic Initiative are making a difference. In Philadelphia, the JASON Project's emphasis on science and technology literacy, professional development, and engaging curriculum materials are changing teachers' practices and students' learning. Teachers are team-teaching; providing hands-on activities, multimedia experiences and field trips; and using alternative assessment tools. As a consequence, their students, many with low academic achievement scores and special needs, are more engaged and excited about learning. As they take initiative and ownership over projects in the classroom, they acquire scientific inquiry, analytical, critical thinking, and communication skills, resulting in average and above average test scores. Combined with strong school leadership programs, the JASON Project can help urban schools and students overcome the many challenges that face them and dispel the myth that they cannot succeed.
Originally published in techLEARNING
Ba, H., Martin, W., and Diaz, O. (2001). The JASON Project's Multi-media Science Curriculum Impact on Student Learning: Final Evaluation Report Year One. NY: Center for Children and Technology/EDC.
Duchovnay, Bram (1999). Evaluation Report for Statewide and Regional Networks and At-Large Sites: JASON X. MA: Eastern Research Group.
Eisner, J. (2001). "Challenges in running urban middle schools." Sunday Review.
EWA (1999). Barriers and Breakthroughs: Technology in urban schools. Washington, D.C.: The Education Writers Association.
Harcombe, E.S. (2001). Science Teaching/Science Learning: Constructivist learning in urban classrooms. NY: Teachers College Press.
Martin, W., Ba, H., and Diaz, O. (2001). Stories from the schools participating in the JASON Project. NY: Center for Children and Technology/EDC.
National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). "Science 2000 Major Results: Subgroup Results for the Nation."
Useem, E. (2000). New Teacher Staffing and Comprehensive Middle School Reform: Philadelphia's experience. Philadelphia Education Fund.