The College of William and Mary’s School of Education received a $5 million award from the U.S. Department of Education to improve science instruction in Virginia schools.
The award will fund the College of William and Mary components of the Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching Achievement, an effort headed by three main partner campuses: the College, George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University. The Investing in Innovation Fund, which is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, awarded the grant to the VISTA program. Out of over 1,600 applicants, 49 were selected for grants, and VISTA was the sole representative from Virginia. The grant is based on data showing that applied science education activities are more powerful means of science teacher education.
VISTA has three main components: summer camps for high-needs children and elementary teacher training, training for provisionally licensed secondary school science teachers and school district science supervision. The College is involved in the summer science camp training for elementary students and elementary teachers, as well as in the training for provisionally licensed middle and high school science teachers.
The purpose of the camps is to increase teachers’s expertise in science, as well as to provide enriching and supplementary learning for students. The camps will provide students with opportunities to exercise creative problem-solving skills by applying science to real-world issues.
Approximately 20 teachers and 24 students will participate in the program in its first year, with twice that many throughout the second through fifth years. By the end of the five-year program, about 400 students and teachers will have received training through the camps at the College.
The camps will be comprised of a diverse student body including children from high-need schools in low-income school districts, mostly in the Tidewater area.
“The camps will expose kids to hands-on, real-world science, with laboratory and applied science activities,” Virginia McLaughlin, dean of the School of Education, said. “The aim is to get students excited about science and to gain a greater interest in the field.”
In many elementary schools today, very little emphasis is placed on science education, due to the intense preparation needed for standardized testing on math and reading abilities. As a result, elementary school curricula do not have as strong of a focus on science, which decreases student interest and enthusiasm in the subject.
One current problem associated with Virginia’s science education is the high number of provisionally licensed science teachers, who may have science backgrounds, but do not necessarily have teaching expertise. The shortage of science teachers who have skills in communicating material to students is a barrier to higher student achievement in science in Virginia. Provisionally-licensed teachers also tend to drop out of the teaching profession at a much higher rate, and VISTA hopes to increase retention.
“VISTA aspires to inspire and provide support for teachers to become more specialized in science,” science education professor Juanita Jo Matkins, co-principal investigator for VISTA at the College, said.
The program will address this shortcoming in science education by helping provisionally licensed teachers gain confidence and skill in teaching science. The program also provides teachers with coaches — mostly retired elementary school teachers — to give them guidance throughout the school year in order to maintain and further develop skills learned from the summer camps.
According to Matkins, VISTA’s ultimate aim is not just to help students memorize more science data, but to engage their intellects.
“The big picture is really to emphasize to students that they should question the world around them and look for answers to those questions,” Matkins said.