November 29, 2011

ECS Science Education Gets a Helping Hand    

Elkhart Community Schools has expanded its inquiry-based science curriculum to the secondary level thanks to a grant from the Monsanto Fund, the philanthropic arm of Monsanto Company.


Monsanto donated $20,000 to ETHOS, (Encouraging Technology and Hands On Science) a non-profit science education organization that supports area science initiatives. ETHOS has been managing the science kits that ECS elementary schools use for science instruction for several years. In addition, ETHOS pursues grant funding to help support science education initiatives for local schools.

     Monsanto presents a check to ETHOS officials
          and ECS eighth-grade science teachers  

The science kit program was expanded to include Elkhart's three middle schools and several high school classrooms this school year after a new secondary science program, SEPUP, (Science Education for Public Understanding Program) was piloted at ECS last year and then selected during the adoption process for science curriculum.


A portion of the SEPUP kits and professional development training for ECS secondary teachers is being funded through the Monsanto grant.


ETHOS received a similar grant a year ago that was used to fund Elkhart's new elementary and high school LEGO robotics programs.


Josh Onken and Barry Meyer, operation and site managers of the Monsanto Company Seed Corn Production Facility in Constantine, Michigan, presented the check to ETHOS representatives Nov. 18. The check presentation was held during a teacher training session at ETHOS, allowing the Monsanto employees to see how their donation is being used. 


“This is such a natural fit for what our company does," Onken said, after chatting with Eric Shipp, an eighth-grade teacher at North Side Middle School, about the SEPUP program, specifically regarding its hands on lessons in determining the ingredients in soils and fertilizers. “Monsanto is committed to supporting science education programs that further science teaching and interest students in science careers."


Patsy Boehler, executive director of ETHOS, said she was thrilled to learn that Monsanto had chosen to fund the SEPUP program, noting it wouldn't have been possible to implement the new curriculum without Monsanto's support. 


“SEPUP builds on our elementary science teaching and continues to elevate students' expertise,” Boehler stated. "The beauty of the inquiry-based program is that it addresses so many learning styles. It helps level the playing field for all students.


"This curriculum is recognized by the National Science Foundation as one of the top curriculums in the nation for teaching inquiry-based science," Boehler continued. "It's wonderful that the Elkhart teachers get to use it. The excitement level in our professional development sessions has been phenomenal."


"I can't imagine teaching science any other way now," Shipp stated. "This is well beyond what we've been able to do with students in the past. I feel like I've been spoiled."


Shipp said that during a traditional science class, the teacher is in charge of the lesson, providing students with facts about the subject. In inquiry-based education, the student determines the direction the lesson takes and the teacher becomes a facilitator.


     Monsanto's Barry Meyer, left, and Josh Onken chat about Elkhart's
  new inquiry-based science curriculum with North Side teacher Eric Shipp
                        and ETHOS' Susan Disch  

"The student tries something, makes a mistake, and then figures out what needs to be done to correct it," Shipp explained. "We're seeing students become the masters of their domain.

"Students are gaining higher level thinking skills than they can get from a textbook," Shipp continued, adding the curriculum includes a lot of writing as students have to document what they've learned. "So the student is not telling me what I told her, she's putting it into terms she can understand and she will remember." 

Life students Ivy DeLaVirgen and Alyssa Coburn
        experiment with light refraction

When the teacher does ask questions, "we're getting in depth answers," Shipp added. "The students' answers have skyrocketed over anything we've had in the past."

For example, when he used to ask a student "What is soil," the student would respond "dirt." "Now they're learning all that 'dirt' entails," Shipp said. “They're working with soil samples to differentiate the ingredients."


Laura Fox, who teaches at LIFE, the district's alternative school, doesn't have a science lab, and, prior to SEPUP, didn't have many science materials to work with. Now her students are able to participate in hands-on experiments that keep them interested and engaged in science.


"I like this so much better than simply reading from a textbook," said student Ivy DeLavirgen as she worked on a light refracting experiment. "I'm a visual learner."


Her classmate, Alyssa Coburn, agreed. "If I read something in a book, I have to read it several times to comprehend it," she said. "With lessons like this, I get the concept right away."


Riverview teacher Douglas Hunnings said his sixth graders also enjoy science more since SEPUP was implemented. "It allows the students to be more actively engaged in their learning," Hunnings stated. "Some of my students have commented that this has been their favorite year of science.

"One of my students said SEPUP helps him think more scientifically and now he has a better understanding of the scientific process," Hunnings continued, adding he's also seen an improvement in his students' writing and critical thinking skills.


"I also like the fact the kits supply almost all of the items needed for the activities, so there is little prep required," Hunnings added. "I am excited that Elkhart Community Schools has adopted SEPUP."

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