PAGE 3 OF 4
Heather Reddick (left) from University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Cancer campus in rural Smithville, Texas, identifies field trips that can be done in almost any small town. Sara Swearingen (right), a fourth grade teacher from Smithville, plans to encourage her cash-strapped district to organize local field trips, to sites like farms, recycling centers, or power plants.
Science in a Box
In far eastern Oregon, Rachel Aazzerah is the only science teacher for the tiny K–12 school in Monument, Oregon. She teaches the required science classes for all of the school’s 60 students starting in seventh grade until they graduate.
Aazzerah is lucky enough to have a great science lab with hoods and a prep room; many of her fellow rural teachers work out of aging classrooms with carpeting and no access to water, which can be both dangerous and discouraging for a teacher who wants to tackle hands-on activities. And she’s been successful in getting grants to help pay for equipment, like spectrometers and DNA gel electrophoresis machines, in part because with a master’s degree in biochemistry, she knew where to look.
Aazzerah’s biggest problem is time. Because she teaches so many different subjects, she has to prepare lessons and grade tests for up to five different classes daily (to save money, the school is on a four-day week). When she chooses to do hands-on labs, which is fairly often, Aazzerah spends her nights and weekends getting ready.
“Guts In A Box” and other science education kits offered by Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) are a big help. The school has created six “In A Box” science kits specifically for rural teachers. They are funded by HHMI and distributed statewide through Oregon’s Area Health Education Centers (AHEC), which do educational outreach to rural communities and schools. (All 50 states have their own rural health centers.) Around 3,700 students used the boxes during the 2009–2010 school year.
OHSU’s Shera Felde, who helped design the kits, explains that they aim to give students a series of connected lessons on the same topic and, perhaps most important for cash-strapped rural teachers, the equipment needed to make the lessons fun. For the “Ear In A Box” kit, which Aazzerah has used in her classes, the lessons include ear anatomy using a plastic model ear; the science of hearing loss using a sound meter; pitch and volume, complete with a rollout piano and hearing aids; plus a lesson on how sound travels from the ear to the brain. Students also learn about science careers in audiology and hearing research.
Aazzerah says her students learned a lot from the lessons, especially the focus on hearing loss. As a teacher, she appreciated the guidance about what activities fit the state standards for different grade levels—and that it’s free. “It’s great especially when you don’t have that kind of equipment in your room. You are able to use it and send it back,” says Aazzerah, whose small budget barely covers textbooks. “[OHSU and AHEC] even pay for the shipping.”
The original idea was for OHSU to train teachers in person on how to use the “In A Box” kits, but the distances proved too difficult to overcome. Now the boxes come with written instructions and a teacher training video. Like Aazzerah, who lives more than three hours from the nearest community college or university, many rural teachers don’t have regular access to teacher training. “It’s hard for working teachers in a non-city environment to get their science courses,” says Barbara Speziale, who directs HHMI’s science education program at South Carolina’s Clemson University.
Speziale and her colleagues learned that rural teachers can’t take classes that meet once a week at a college hours away. So they designed intensive graduate-level summer classes to help rural teachers learn new skills or incorporate more hands-on science in their classes. The Clemson team created short classes—one to two weeks on campus—based on the teachers’ interests and state standards. The eclectic mix that resulted includes focused lab science courses like “Welcome to the Gene Age” and “What is Bioinformatics?” as well as ecology and natural science courses like “Ethnobotany and Ethnoecology of South Carolina” and “Teaching Your Watershed.”
Deb Whittington, a science specialist at J. Paul Truluck Middle School in Lake City, South Carolina, has taken several Clemson classes, both the intensive summer courses and newer online offerings. “I probably wouldn’t be able to do it if these were traditional courses offered only during the normal school year,” she says. What’s more, Clemson often provides materials—microscopes, electronic sensors, stains, or cellular growth media—that the schools wouldn’t be able to fund otherwise. “They make it so you’re comfortable that you can go back and use it in your classroom,” Whittington says.
Photos: Matt Rainwaters