URI, RIC awarded $12.5 million federal grant to boost science and math teaching, learning across state

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Partners include Johnston Public Schools, state education department, Brown University, and Concord Consortium

Today Governor Donald L. Carcieri announced that the University of Rhode Island, in partnership with Rhode Island College, has been awarded a five-year, $12.5 million National Science Foundation grant to transform the quality of science and mathematics teaching and learning at all Rhode Island middle and high schools.

“It’s gratifying to me that Rhode Island received 1 of 23 grants awarded from a highly competitive pool of 181 proposals,” Governor Carcieri noted. “We should all be very proud of this accomplishment, especially those who worked so hard to enable us to receive these funds. This grant will enable us to develop a unified science improvement plan which includes resources for school leaders, professional development for teachers, electronic materials, and opportunities for students to enroll in virtual high school advanced math, science and technology courses. This effort will contribute to our ongoing efforts to assist our schools in aligning their education program to the state’s science standards,” he concluded.

The Governor and the Commissioner for Elementary and Secondary Education, Peter McWalters, earlier this week released the results of Rhode Island’s first state assessment in science at grades 4, 8 and 11. Only 24 percent of Rhode Island’s students scored proficient or better. The results were especially sobering for students in Rhode Island’s secondary schools.

The new grant, titled the Rhode Island Technology Enhanced Sciences (RITES) program, is designed to reach all 686 Rhode Island middle and high school teachers and all 83,339 of their students. Collaborating closely with the schools, the grant partners will develop an extensive series of short courses for teachers. The goal is to have schools establish effective teaching strategies and research-based content tied to the 64 state standards for secondary science and applied mathematics.

In addition to URI and RIC, core partners are Johnston Public Schools, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit educational research and development organization based in Concord, Mass. that creates interactive materials that exploit the power of information technologies. Supporting partners are Brown University, the Community College of Rhode Island, and the Rhode Island Economic Development Corp.

The project focuses on learning through guided inquiry and extensive use of technology. Pairs of middle and high schools will develop a unified science improvement plan to address student needs. The courses for teachers will feature computer-based materials, using laboratory investigations, models of virtual environments and software to access science databases. Additionally, the materials will include assessments to give students and teachers prompt and accurate data on student proficiency with each standard.

Daniel P. Murray, a University of Rhode Island geosciences professor, is the principal investigator. The co-principal investigators are Glenisson de Oliveira, associate professor of chemistry at Rhode Island College and director of the Rhode Island Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Center at RIC; Kathryn Crowley, assistant superintendent in charge of science and technology in the Johnston Schools, Peter McLaren, Science and Technology Specialist with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Robert Tinker, president of the Concord Consortium. Other partners are David Cedrone, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program manager for the Rhode Island Economic Development Corp. and Deborah Collins, Director of research and evaluation at The Education Alliance at Brown University.

“The goal of this grant is to change science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in the state,” URI’s Murray said. “We will offer programs for public school teachers with specific topics that are appropriate for each grade. This project is not only designed to improve science and mathematics teaching and learning, it is designed to serve as a template for other districts around the country. Because of the state’s small size, it’s ideal for this type of an experiment.”

Murray has extensive experience doing field research with Rhode Island public school teachers. “I learn from them because they point out interesting features and new interpretations that may have escaped my attention. That’s the spirit we want to inculcate, that sense of exploration and investigation because it’s fun.”

De Oliveira said URI and RIC scientists, mathematicians and engineers will offer content expertise to teachers, while the schools’ education faculty will ensure consistency in the program. Education Professor David Byrd, director of URI’s School of Education, will oversee the URI teacher education faculty as part of the project at URI and Roger Eldridge, dean of RIC’s School of Education, will oversee teacher education faculty at RIC.

“Middle and high school teachers will assess what their needs are relating to curriculum and then play keys roles in developing tools for the classrooms,” de Oliveira said, “Teachers are essential to the decisions that are being made. This grant is going to strengthen the entire system.”

“We are also looking carefully at infrastructure we already have in the state, such as partnering with EPSCOR, another major science education grant awarded to Jeff Seemann, dean of URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences,” de Oliveira said.

As a supporting partner in RITES, Brown University will assist Providence and other urban school districts in training science and math teachers. “The need is clear: With the science scores so low, we all must do whatever we can, and contribute however we can, to better educate students in the math and sciences. Brown is committed to the RITS program and to helping students learn math and science in the largest school district in the state,” said David Targan, associate dean of the College for Science Education at Brown and an adjunct associate professor of physics.

Commissioner McWalters said the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education focused on designing a project that called for schools to self-evaluate and identify needs in their science instruction, curriculum, and assessment using the state’s standards and the results of the NECAP Science Assessment.

“Using this information, the project will provide opportunities for teachers to engage in science courses taught by URI and RIC faculty to reinforce and enrich their content knowledge while, at the same time, have education faculty provide guidance in best-practice instruction,” McWalters said. “The end result will be an aligned program that supports Rhode Island teachers in a consistent manner.”

Crowley said The Johnston Public School system is honored to be a core member of the RITES Grant Project. “Johnston High School and Nicholas A. Ferri Middle School science teachers will be in the first tier group in this statewide exploratory and investigative approach to teaching science,” she said. “We look forward to being one of the ambassadors for this statewide initiative.”

The NSF grant is being issued by the Division of Undergraduate Education (EHR/DUE) – MSP Targeted Awards. (Project number #0831974.)