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Texas teachers adopt Rice's STEMscopes

By Seth Brown     2/1/12 6:00pm

Thanks to a team at Rice, Texas teachers have an online teaching option that does not come from a traditional textbook publisher.

STEMscopes, an online science curriculum developed by Rice's Center for Technology in Teaching and Learning, was approved by the state legislature in summer 2011 as one of several online teaching options for each grade which districts can select to be purchased for them by the state.

"We are the only non-profit that has produced something like this – the others are all from traditional publishing companies," STEMscopes Director Reid Whitaker said.

According to Whitaker, the program's development began in 2007 with the creation of TAKSscopes, named after the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, Texas' standardized test at the time. Whitaker said that the CTTL began working on developing STEMscopes from TAKSscopes in 2009 when the state legislature put out a call for online-only science teaching materials.

TAKS has been replaced this academic year with the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness for third through eighth grade and with end-of-course assessments for the current high school freshman cohort.

Whitaker said STEMscopes is the number one program for fifth through eighth grade.

"I think the reason it is successful is that it is very Texas-oriented and -driven," Whitaker said. "It gives teachers autonomy to teach science in a very different way – the kids are not just sitting and getting, they're building and doing."

According to Whitaker, STEMscopes has a 50 percent overall market share among online teaching curricula, and is used by 40,000 teachers and more than 500,000 students. Whitaker said STEMscopes has a greater than 50 percent market share in fifth grade, 40-50 percent market shares in sixth through eigth grade and is the only program currently available for Kindergarten through fourth grade. The high school version of STEMscopes, which consists of biology, chemistry and physics editions, is currently being piloted and will be released in May, according to Whitaker.

The program costs $2.90-$4.90 per student per year depending on the grade of the student in question, Whitaker said.

"We're the lowest cost but the highest quality," Whitaker said. "As a non-profit [we're] not making money, [we're] putting it back into the development of the program."

Whitaker said the program is part of President David Leebron's Vision for the Second Century.

"We're focusing on providing high-quality activities to kindergarten through 12th grade by leveraging the intellectual capacity at Rice to create something," Whitaker said.

Biochemistry Faculty Fellow Gerda Saxer is one of several Rice faculty who have been involved in STEMscopes' development.

"I first heard about STEMscopes when they introduced it at my [first grade] daughter's school," Saxer said. "Then they sent out an email to the faculty that they were looking for someone to review the high school materials, and I recognized STEMscopes so I applied for it."

Saxer said her work reviewing the biology material has entailed reading through each scope, as the different topics are referred to, and checking for biological inaccuracies and clarity.

The CTTL also employs some undergraduate students to work with STEMscopes on a work-study basis. McMurtry College junior Morgan Anthony said the student workers are given work according to their strengths.

"I'm an English major – I post things that writers send us to the site and watch out for errors," Anthony said. "I've been doing a lot with the assessments – I take the quizzes, make sure the answers line up with the questions."

Will Rice College senior Biplov Baral, who has been working on STEMscopes since fall 2010, said his work as a student leader with the project includes contacting teachers that provide material and looking over the assessments for accuracy.

"I like how they really refine the content," Baral said. "From where I see it, it's been really fun."

STEMscopes is based around the 5E learning cycle of engaging, exploring, explaining, elaborating, and evaluating, according to Whitaker.

Round Rock Independent School District Elementary Science Lead Curriculum Specialist Jean Martin said the presence of the 5E model in the program was an important factor in the district's decision to use STEMscopes.

"[5E is] a really important framework for teaching science for our district," Martin said. "We needed really strong examples of 5E instruction that teachers could learn from, and our teachers have a much better understanding of what that looks like in science now because of STEMscopes."

All the STEMscopes materials have "Rice University" printed on them, which Whitaker said he thinks brings recruitment value to the university.

"You can't put a price on that recruitment strategy," Whitaker said. "It will make an impact in students' lives when they decide what college they want to go to."

Whitaker said that in a year, he wants the entire program to be available for use on tablet computers.

"This is going to be revolutionary," Whitaker said. "STEMscopes is going to be on the forefront of what an interactive text is going to look like."

Although STEMscopes is designed based on Texas' science standards, Whitaker said that the program is also being used in other markets, including North Dakota, California, Honduras, and Guatemala. The lack of a national marketing push allows the team working on STEMscopes to refine the program and respond to the needs of teachers in the state. However, Whitaker said that once a national curriculum has been created by the federal government, a national STEMscopes platform will be developed based around those standards.

"Without a national curriculum, we didn't believe [a national STEMscopes platform] would be as strong," Whitaker said.

Northside Independent School District Elementary Science Instructional Support Teacher Nancy Kreth said that while many products claim to be made for Texas, TAKSscopes was extremely connected to the TAKS test. Kreth said she hoped that future versions of STEMscopes will increase student-teacher interactions.

"Maybe including products or some pieces on there where the kids interact with the teacher a bit more – continuing down that path of student usability," Kreth said on possible improvements to the program. "I think there's a real push to have kids interacting with [STEMscopes]."

Port Houston Elementary School Teacher Maria Greene, who teaches science to third through fifth grade students, said she thought the addition of a commenting system for teachers using the program, organized by topic, would help teachers share ideas and experiences.

"I feel like a system with open comments would extend the community and help teachers collaborate," Greene said.

Greene said she uses STEMscopes selectively based on what she thinks will work for the students and classroom environment in question.

"I don't know that I've seen any other program with as many open-ended questions," Greene said. "It forces students to think on a higher level."

Whitaker said that TAKSscopes began as an ad hoc project to provide science teaching resources to teachers in Rice's old professional development program. The program was expanded after realizing how great the need was for such materials, Whitaker said.

Along with developing the high school and tablet computer versions of STEMscopes, the team's goals for the program include creating a professional development program to train teacher leaders in teaching high-quality concepts and providing more quality resources for teachers, Whitaker said.

"Our goal is to produce future scientists," Whitaker said. "We want to get them excited.

STEMscopes in Quotes

"One thing I would like to see is the same approach to other curricula – not just science."

—Will Rice College senior Biplov Baral

"It allows me to do some of our tech requirements at the same time the kids enjoy it better and it's easier for struggling readers."

—Susan Tjon, third grade instructor, Pond Springs Elementary School

"When the results came back from the TAKS test, several campuses that had really improved the student achievement said it was [due to] TAKSscopes."

— Jean Martin, elementary science lead curriculum specialist, Round Rock Independent School District

"The kids think it's fun – the best feedback you can get is when the teacher says ‘let's go' and they groan. It starts with the teacher – if the teachers are excited, they take it back to their kids. This is userfriendly, easy to understand and generates a grade."

— Nikki Skinner, science instructor, Almeda Elementary School

"When we first heard about STEMscopes, we did our research – one of the things that attracted us was that Rice came up with it instead of a company trying to make a fast buck. We knew it was a good product, but in a district-wide vote, it had to stand on its own merit, and the teachers voted it the best product."

—Debbie Traynor, elementary science instructional specialist, Northside Independent School District

"I know that if I tried anything else with them, they wouldn't be happy. STEMscopes isn't the only thing we use, but it gives them a good foundation on which they could build, and the kids like it."

—Becky Lindsey, secondary science coordinator, Crosby Independent School District

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