On a blue-sky, spring-perfect morning, some 60 youngsters spill out of a pair of yellow school buses and, with the abundant gestures and fits-and-starts energy characteristic of seventh-graders, head for the grassy area of a park at the north branch of the Chicago River.
The buzz of adolescent anticipation is cut only by the occasional exclamation. "Ms. Korman! What's this white stuff flying into my hair?" "Ms. Korman, is it safe to touch the water?" "Hey, Ms. Korman, I'm scared of poison ivy."
Keshia Korman, a science laboratory teacher at Stone Scholastic Academy in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood, urges them to settle down. "Pull it together, seventh-graders. You're here as scientists to find out what shape the river is in," says the jeans-and-sweatshirt-clad public schoolteacher.
"This is not a field trip," she adds emphatically. "This is a river experience."
A river experience and then some. In fact Korman and her students are participants in the Center for Learning Technologies in Urban Schools (LeTUS), what some in national education circles are calling nothing less than a revolution in middle-school science education.
A collaboration of Northwestern, the Chicago Public Schools, the University of Michigan and the Detroit Public Schools, LeTUS brings together schoolteachers and university researchers as equal partners to develop technology-rich science curricula. Together they develop course work that lets middle schoolers conduct authentic scientific research using the technologies and data regularly employed by real-life scientists.
"The difference is that scientists are using them to expand the boundaries of human knowledge," says Daniel Edelson (GSESP93), a key LeTUS researcher. "Students are using them to expand the boundaries of their own personal knowledge."
An associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy, Edelson earned a doctorate in computer science from Northwestern in 1993 and completed a postdoctoral program with LeTUS director Louis Gomez, Aon Professor of Learning Sciences and a nationally respected education researcher.
Because today's scientists rely on technology, some aspects but by no means all of LeTUS curricula require students to use computers and the World Wide Web. But technology is never the subject of LeTUS curricula, Gomez emphasizes. It is simply one tool that is used in the process of answering important questions, in the same way that one uses a pencil, calculator or book.
All LeTUS curricula take advantage of some form of computer technology, whether it's simple force and motion sensors or highly interactive computer software.
"Certain things can be done better with or could never be done without some form of technology. When that's the case, we use it," says Gomez, who also holds the position of associate professor of computer science at Northwestern. "There's no dramatic pendulum that's swinging over to make all science education technology-driven."
Along the banks of the Chicago River, for example, schoolteacher Korman pulls out all sorts of things from her river experience arsenal.
In addition to her omnipresent portable I-Book computer are disposable cameras, temperature, sound and light sensor probes, notebooks, waders, buckets and a digital video camera. There are boxes brimming with chemical testing kits, rubber gloves and petri dishes that Korman and her students have lugged from Stone, the Chicago school where Korman has taught for four years.
She introduces the middle schoolers to the volunteers from Friends of the Chicago River who will assist them in their investigations. With remarkable efficiency she divides the youngsters into a dozen groups. There are the chemical testers, the plant, bug and animal surveyors, the pollution detectors and the measurers of light, sediment and sound.
Also on hand are audiovisual and literature groups of students, whose members record and interview other students on videotape to create a documentary of the river experience.
Korman works closely with a group hooking up sensors to her portable I-Book to determine how much light the river reflects. The next day they'll create graphs using the school's computers to make sense of the data.
Working in groups of six, students disperse to do their assigned tasks at the water's edge. Two hours later they return to the grassy area where they started and present their findings.
They've discovered fox and deer tracks, graffiti and garbage, mayfly larvae, uprooted trees, reasonable ph levels and slightly elevated nitrate levels and made other discoveries that will allow them to evaluate the river's general health.
Only a few days before Korman took several Chicago middle-school teachers to the same spot in anticipation of their own upcoming middle-school river experiences. In exchange for graduate credit from SESP and the gift of a portable computer, the teachers have been taking a 10-week class with her.
In the class, which meets weekly at a school centrally located in the city, Korman helps teachers learn to teach the technology-infused science curricula that LeTUS develops and to understand the "inquiry science" philosophy behind it.
Center director Gomez firmly believes that today's students will be expected to use technology and manipulate large data sets with computers in tomorrow's workplace. And urban students, who often have less opportunity to do exciting things with computers than more affluent suburban students, will one day need the skills that LeTUS learning builds.
"You can take it to the bank that these kids eventually will be in a work environment where someone's going to hand them a huge amount of data and ask them to make sense of it," Gomez says. "It may be data on real estate or marketing trends, but they're going to be expected to analyze it."
By combining the expertise of Chicago and Detroit public school teachers with Northwestern and University of Michigan researchers, the center has developed technology-integrated, inquiry-driven curricula in earth and environmental science, biology, weather, animal behavior and physics.
Using computer software customized by Northwestern researchers, middle schoolers are able to conduct complex, meaningful scientific investigations.
They always begin with a question that drives their investigations. In the case of the seventh-graders from Stone Academy cheerfully working along the river bank, the question is: "What is the quality of the Chicago River?"
In another environmental science unit developed by associate professor Brian Reiser, also a key LeTUS researcher, students take a look at the Galapagos Islands and ask why certain finches on one island survived a 1977 ecological crisis while others did not.
Once the driving question in a LeTUS curriculum is framed, they ask and re-ask questions, develop and revise hypotheses, gather facts to support their theories and draw conclusions on the basis of the data they've collected and analyzed.
In short, they learn science by doing science and by taking part firsthand in the scientific process.
What's gratifying about teaching LeTUS curricula is seeing students who may initially have had a hard time with a learning unit eventually supporting their hypotheses with facts and making convincing arguments, says veteran Chicago science teacher Dan Lucas.
Lucas recently team-taught LeTUS science curricula with Barbara Dubielak-Wood at Reilly School, a 1,800-student K-8 public school in Chicago's Avondale area. It's a neighborhood of well-tended three-flats and large families where students often speak English as a second language.
The two teachers also have taken LeTUS classes taught by other Chicago teachers involved in the Center for Learning Technologies.
LeTUS is "a hard sell," acknowledges Lou-Ellen Finn, a teacher with more than 30 years' experience in the Chicago public school system who became involved in the center in its early days. Finn now serves as a LeTUS professional development coordinator, working closely with other teachers like Lucas and Dubielak-Wood, who want to give the hands-on LeTUS curricula a try.
"You're asking teachers to dramatically change what they've been doing since they started teaching. Inquiry science changes the role of the teacher to that of a facilitator. For some teachers that's very threatening," says Finn, who adds that her position at the center gives her the "the chance to get other teachers to see how exciting this stuff is."
Inquiry science does indeed require extra work. "It's easier to say, 'Let's read these pages, memorize these facts and answer these questions,'" Finn says. Because LeTUS curricula emphasize small group work, students are often literally not on the same page or even in the same place, making class management more difficult. Finn likens inquiry science teaching to keeping 30 beach balls underwater at the same time.
But if the process is initially more difficult, LeTUS researchers and teachers say that it becomes easier the more a teacher does it. "When you do a second and then a third curriculum, you begin to see that it really works," says Finn.
With students in about 60 out of approximately 500 K-8 Chicago public schools exposed to LeTUS teaching, the center is reaching a critical mass, Edelson suggests. It no longer attracts only "maverick" teachers who have been looking for or trying to create project-based inquiry science all along. Increasingly the center receives calls from and works with more traditional teachers who are looking for innovative science curricula or just curious about it.
While the Center for Learning Technologies in Urban Schools welcomes these teachers, it recognizes that they require more intensive support. This is where professional development coordinator Finn, her Chicago Public Schools equivalent Chandra James, the teacher-taught classes and summer conferences for teachers come in.
The center even sponsors occasional "bring-a-principal-friend" dinners. At these get-togethers principals whose students are engaged in LeTUS learning bring other principals whose schools have not adopted LeTUS to the center to spread the word. It is these principal-to-principal and teacher-to-teacher connections that are the catalysts for science education reform, according to Edelson.
Korman, for example, taught the water quality curriculum to other teachers at the same time she taught the unit to her students. While focused on pedagogy issues such as inquiry, student conceptions, assessment and technology the teacher class was always grounded in the river curriculum.
Teaching, one hears again and again, is often a very isolated profession that provides teachers with little time to reflect on the work they do. Because the teachers in LeTUS classes for science teachers are enacting the same curriculum together, they can discuss what they did in class the week before and what succeeded or failed.
"Suddenly," says Korman, "there's a community of teachers to help you think about your work. For many of us, the opportunity to participate in a community of teachers is the highlight of [the center]."
Trained as a cognitive psychologist, LeTUS director Gomez came to the School of Education and Social Policy in 1993 from Bellcore, a spinoff of AT&T Bell Labs, where he was director of human-computer research and worked on issues of learning and education.
Gomez and Edelson worked together on an early incarnation of LeTUS (with a less-than-memorable acronym, CoVis) that they first piloted in Evanston Township and nearby New Trier High Schools and later introduced in middle and high schools across the country.
Their early CoVis experiences taught them that providing cool high-tech educational software was not enough to prompt science education reform.
Often-overburdened teachers with little opportunity for reflection simply didn't have the time to integrate into their lessons the powerful software learning tools that the researchers invented.
That lesson learned, Gomez took a major detour in his research. In 1997 Edelson, Reiser and he established the center with its university and urban school district partners, and he began mining the real-life expertise of middle and high school educators. With the input of these teachers, the three colleagues and their graduate students became curriculum designers.
"We didn't develop our curricula and then hand off the binder of lesson plans and software to teachers and say, 'Try this, it'll be good for you,'" says Reiser. Rather, Reiser and his colleagues created a collaborative team of researchers and teachers. "Instead of a lesson plan fixed in stone, we asked teachers to help solve problems. We asked teachers to revise our curricula, to tell us where they succeed and where they fail in engaging and teaching students."
Where LeTUS' predecessor CoVis spent huge amounts of money on state-of-the-art technology, Gomez and his partners directed the bulk of LeTUS' multimillion-dollar National Science Foundation funding toward curriculum development first and then on teacher training.
Chicago public schoolteacher Judy Whitcomb was one of the first teachers to work with Gomez and Edelson. She vividly recalls her initial skepticism when the University researchers approached her for her participation.
Too often researchers ask teachers to pilot what the researchers see as a finished, innovative curriculum, she says. "Then they're out the door before the teachers have a chance to figure the curriculum out, much less review or assess it.
"Louis [Gomez] and his researchers were different," Whitcomb says. "They listened to us. They came to our classrooms. They walked in our shoes. I have enormous respect for Louis because he said to teachers, ÔLet's tackle these problems together,' and because he made good on his promise to be in [science education reform] for the long haul."
The results of that mutual problem solving included weekly and biweekly work circles where teachers and researchers came together to design curricula around the learning tools things called World Watcher, the Galapagos Finches, Animal Behavior, Model It and the Progress Portfolio that LeTUS researchers developed. Then they encouraged teachers to provide more feedback.
These work circle exchanges between researchers and teachers echo when Reilly School teachers Lucas and Dubielak-Wood finish teaching a lesson in Planetary Forecaster. In Forecaster students are put in charge of newly discovered fictional planets by an international space agency. Their mission is to figure out how best to colonize those planets based on where temperatures make them most habitable.
After team-teaching a Forecaster class, Lucas and Dubielak-Wood review what has just happened in their classroom with SESP graduate student Matthew Brown, who was there to observe and provide a third pair of hands. The teachers feel that one activity in the unit tries to flush out more concepts than their students can absorb. Brown takes note, and Lucas is confident that Planetary Forecaster will undergo another minor revision.
Only a few moments before, a student named Jessica, working with her Reilly School classmates, told an observer: "The more we do our work, the more our ideas change. ... There are no right or wrong answers."
Student comments like these are music to the ears of LeTUS teachers and researchers alike. "Inquiry science takes away the notion that the teacher has all the answers and allows the students to find the answers themselves," says Stone Academy teacher Korman. "It allows misconceptions to bubble up and lets teachers take advantage of them."
The result is real discussion, according to Korman and other teachers creating and taking advantage of LeTUS curricula. "My students learn best when they start asking questions and coming up with their own theories," Korman says. "I don't have to give them the answers. They discover answers for themselves and have real scientific experiences."
What's more, many teachers report that LeTUS curricula sometimes have the power to engage the proverbial back-row student who isn't reached by traditional teaching methods. Before boarding the bus and heading for McDonald's (the carrot that Korman laughingly suggests is the capstone for every successful field experience), she points out one such student.
"LeTUS curricula aren't simply about sitting down and taking a test," says Reilly School teacher Lucas. The child who's really good at talking to other kids and getting ideas on the table can suddenly shine. The student who can make inferences is suddenly showing academic strengths. Because LeTUS projects are diverse, they let diverse skills come to the surface.
But it also initially can be difficult for students to understand that the process and not the final product is what is important. "Students have been trained from the time they begin school to get the right answer," says Finn.
"The first thing kids ask the teacher is if they're right," she adds. LeTUS curricula don't automatically reward the traditional "good student" who's learned to throw back to the teacher what the teacher has told him.
"The Center for Learning Technologies in Urban Schools is not just conducting research on science education reform. It's doing research within school systems and figuring out how to make reform in those systems sustainable," says Nora Sabelli, a senior program director at the National Science Foundation who focuses on science and mathematics education. "It's unique research that education experts at the National Science Foundation and around the country are closely watching."
LeTUS director Gomez believes that the collaboration between the universities and urban districts is the hallmark of the center. "The bidirectional nature of this stuff is really important. It's not that the University school folks teach and the schools people learn," he says. "The schools people teach us as much about our research as we teach them."
"There's lots of intellectual gab these days about student ownership and shared decision making and open-ended discovery in education," says teacher Judy Whitcomb. But she didn't know how to get there.
"Collaborating with Northwestern has turned me into a teacher/researcher," she adds. "It's given me the pathways to go into my classroom and do not just hands-on but minds-on learning."
Wendy Leopold is a senior editor in Northwestern's Department of University Relations