VCU Awarded $5.1 Million to Improve Science Education

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The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education has received $5.1 million from the U.S Department of Education to improve science teaching and student learning, especially in high-need schools, in Central Virginia.

The award is part of a five-year, $34 million grant for the Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement (VISTA), a partnership of 47 school districts, six universities, SRI International and the Virginia Department of Education. University partners include VCU, the College of William and Mary, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, James Madison University and George Mason University, which will lead the partnership.

VISTA was one of nearly 1,700 applicants across the country that competed for a share of $650 million in federal grants and one of only 49 selected to receive awards. Funding was provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“This grant has the potential to significantly impact science teaching across Virginia,” said VISTA at VCU Director and Associate Professor Jacqueline T. McDonnough, Ph.D. “It will provide research-based reform of K-12 science instruction to teachers, so that they can help all students, including students with disabilities and limited English proficiency, maximize their science understanding and practice.“

VCU will use the award primarily to conduct summer science institutes and science camps for elementary teachers, to recruit teachers and coaches who will work with them, and to recruit students from high needs schools for the camps. Another component of the grant will provide coursework and coaches for uncertified or provisionally certified secondary science teachers. The grant also has a goal to increase access for rural teachers to professional development.

Content knowledge for elementary teachers tends to be deficient and most do not know how to teach inquiry-based science.

Through VISTA at VCU, they will be trained in inquiry-based science teaching using problem-based modules that tap the knowledge of VCU scientists and researchers. In the camps, they will practice the modules on students recruited from high-needs schools in Region 1, which includes the counties of Charles City, Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, New Kent, Powhatan, Prince George, Surry and Sussex; and the cities of Colonial Heights, Hopewell, Petersburg and Richmond.

To bridge a shortage of trained science teachers, school systems hired 425 uncertified or provisionally certified secondary science teachers during the 2009-2010 school year, according to the Virginia Department of Education. These teachers have a science content degree but no degree or experience in teaching.

VISTA at VCU will offer these teachers science method courses with help from experienced science teachers who will coach them through their first year and provide support.

“The VISTA grant will provide an important opportunity for professional growth and development for exemplary twenty-first century science instruction,” said Melanie Haimes-Bartolf, Ph.D., Instructional Specialist for Science at Chesterfield County Public Schools. “It will further our desire and ability to support and sustain inquiry-based, state-of-the art science instruction so that our students will be able to think and work like scientists. “

Similar VISTA programs will take place at William and Mary and George Mason.