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July - August 2005

Engaging science students

New DLESE instructional plans, known as Teaching Boxes, use innovative approaches to science classes.

hiaperDuring a workshop at UCAR, Lisé Whitfield (left) works with Phil Staoffer of the U.S. Geological Service and Bill McMillon of Tomales High School to create a Teaching Box on ocean science.

In 23 years of teaching, Peg Dabel has never seen middle school students as excited as when she used a Web-based lesson plan that she and other teachers developed with the DLESE Program Center (DPC) and several other organizations.

"The kids really wanted to come to class," says the California teacher. "They were delighted. It made the topic come alive for them."

Peg is one of more than a dozen teachers in the San Francisco Bay area who is working on an innovative series of lesson plans, known as Teaching Boxes. The group met at UCAR in June to create four new Teaching Boxes, in addition to two that were developed last year. These latest boxes will be presented this fall at a California Science Teachers Association conference and uploaded into DLESE for use by teachers in every state, potentially becoming a valuable tool for motivating students.

Teaching Boxes incorporate interactive Web pages, simulations, classroom activities, and scientific animations to spark students' interest while teaching them about such science topics as plate tectonics and sea level change. For example, students might go to a Web page that lets them try to design a bridge that won't be toppled in an earthquake or click on an animation that illustrates the uplift of mountains.

The boxes are based on California and national science education standards.

“The kids became very engaged in solving a problem. They were like little detectives.”

—Peg Dabel

In addition to the DPC, collaborators on the Teaching Boxes project include CU, the University of California Museum of Paleontology, the U.S. Geological Survey, San Francisco State University, and several San Francisco Bay Area school districts.

"This is an important service we can provide to educators who don't necessarily have time to go through DLESE's collections on their own," explains DPC director Mary Marlino.

She adds that Teaching Boxes provide a "one-stop shop" containing learning goals, library resources, and activities organized around topics important to Earth system science education. The boxes direct teachers to specific Web sites that educators and scientists have vetted, and they also provide lesson plans that explain how to incorporate the sites and other resources into a classroom setting.

DPC's Shelley Olds is helping to coordinate the project with Judy Scotchmoor, assistant director of the University of California Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley. Other DPC staffers working on Teaching Boxes include Lynne Davis and Holly Devaul, as well as Huda Khan and Keith Maul, who are graduate students in CU's computer science department.

The DPC launched the Teaching Boxes project last year as a pilot program with help from an NSF grant. Peg and several other teachers tested it in their classrooms, where the Teaching Boxes won rave reviews from students.

Inquiry-based method

To create Teaching Boxes, teachers work with DPC staffers, scientists, and education experts to develop a set of learning concepts for students and track down reputable science Web sites that support the learning of those concepts. They then draw up lesson plans that pose provocative questions to students while directing them to the Web sites as well as to print materials.

The lesson plans emphasize an inquiry-based teaching method. This means that the teacher, instead of presenting students with a series of accepted facts, poses a question and invites students to conduct their own research to answer it. Rather than tell students about the evidence for plate tectonics, for example, a teacher may ask students to look at fossil patterns and explain why fossils in western Africa and eastern South America are so similar.

One way that Peg's students learned about plate tectonics was to visit a Web page each day that recorded tremors over the preceding 24 hours. By mapping these tremors, they uncovered where plates strike each other. They were so engrossed that they continued to map the tremors even after the class moved on to other topics.

"The kids became very engaged in solving a problem," Peg says. "They were like little detectives."

During the June meeting at UCAR, several teachers praised Teaching Boxes for giving them an important tool to engage students. "This is building an approach where the students will find the answer," said Lisé Whitfield, a high school teacher who was working to create a lesson plan on ocean science. "They'll learn better."

Shelley says an important test is whether teachers in other regions of the country are able to adapt Teaching Boxes and make them relevant to their students. While earthquakes may engage schoolchildren in California, students in the Southeast may be more fascinated by hurricanes. "We've tried to have each Teaching Box designed in a way that is transportable," Shelley explains. "We want Teaching Boxes to enrich science education across the nation."

• by David Hosansky

On the Web

For more about Teaching Boxes

Also in this issue...

A global view

Six new senior scientists named

SOARS marks 10th anniversary

Engaging science students

Pedaling for a cause

New SERE center emphasizes climate education

Fellowship honors a unique research partnership

HAO moves to CG1

Just One Look


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