Creating Internet-Based Curriculum Projects
Like many new students showing up for the first day of classes, teachers arriving for the first of a yearlong series of Internet workshops at Stevens Institute of Technology are not really sure what is in store for them. They have been selected by their school administrators to learn how to integrate Internet activities into science and mathematics education, but some of them come with few computer skills, let alone Internet experience. Many question whether they will be able to keep up with the class. Most express disbelief when shown Internet-based science and mathematics projects that former workshop participants have produced. "Surely, that won't be expected of me," they murmur. Yet, in the end, most of the teachers will accomplish the very thing they thought impossible.
Since its inception in 1988, the Center for Improved Engineering and Science Education (CIESE) at Stevens has promoted the use of technology as a means to facilitate student learning and has conducted numerous workshops for teachers to help them learn how to integrate different types of technology into their curricula. In recent years, CIESE has focused on the use of real-time data available from the Internet for use in the classroom. This may include weather data to help students monitor and predict weather patterns, earthquake data from the USGS enabling students to "discover" the relationship between earthquakes and plate tectonic boundaries, or real experimental data such as the boiling point of water recorded by many classes around the world. These are good examples of how the use of technology, specifically the Internet, can help to make learning real and exciting for students.
Over the years, CIESE's teacher professional development programs have taken many forms, but the model that has produced some of the best success stories is one in which teachers develop their own Internet-based science and mathematics projects to use in their classrooms. This model for using technology in the classroom encompasses 120+ hours of interaction with CIESE staff members. It is a time-intensive undertaking for teachers, but the model has proven to be successful for a number of reasons:
- It promotes the integration of the Internet into traditional science and mathematics curricula in unique and compelling ways.
- It provides a creative and stimulating experience for teachers trying to assimilate many new ideas and skills in the context of a project relevant to their own classroom.
- It provides an ongoing support mechanism to help teachers develop and implement their projects.
- It builds teacher confidence to a level that enables them to become mentors or to provide staff development to others in their school or district.
School Year Workshops
During the school year, teachers, working in teams of two to four per school, are released from their classes approximately once per month to attend full-day hands-on computer workshops at Stevens. We have found that regularly scheduled workshops expose teachers to compelling Internet activities while building their skill and confidence levels for using the Internet in their classes. Sessions start with a basic Internet skills development workshop, but then quickly delve into subject-specific workshops such as earth science, environmentalscience, physical science, life science, and mathematics.
Other workshops offered throughout the year may include classroom management strategies and mentoring techniques, Internet searching, and Web page development. To help keep teachers in touch with one another and with the CIESE staff, a listserv is set up so that all teachers can share their questions, suggestions for great Internet resources, and comments about the program via e-mail. Teachers are encouraged to read postings and to post their own comments on the listserv between workshop sessions.
Preparation for the Summer Institute
Prior to the summer institute, participants and their school administrators meet for a special session. In this session, teachers, with input from their administrators, select a curriculum topic to develop into an Internet-based project during the upcoming two-week summer institute. Experience has shown that administrator input and support for the development of an Internet-based project are critical to ensuring its implementation in the classroom and its coherence with district curriculum priorities.
During this session, CIESE staff members work closely with each of the groups to help identify areas where a Web project might be appropriate. CIESE also requires that the projects meet certain criteria, mostly to ensure that the projects become meaningful resources for classroom learning. Specifically, each project must:
- Use real-time data available from the Internet, or be a collaborative project in which students from around the world work together to solve a real problem or question;
- Include science, mathematics and, where possible, language arts activities;
- Use sound scientific and mathematical methods;
- Meet the curriculum requirements and standards of the school district; and
- Be suitable for classroom implementation during the following school year.
Prior to the summer institute, CIESE staff members put together a list of helpful Internet resources related to each group's topic of choice. These resource lists provide a starting point for teachers when they begin to develop their projects during the summer institute and significantly reduce the amount of time they spend searching for relevant (or irrelevant) information.
During the 10-day summer institute, teachers are charged with the seemingly enormous task of developing the Internet-based project that they have selected. The projects they develop will ultimately include sections for data collection and analysis, hands-on activities, related subject activities and enrichment activities, student instructions, teacher lesson plans, curriculum standards, assessment rubrics, classroom implementation plans and Internet resources. Although many of the participants are initially overwhelmed by the thought of the task ahead of them, they quickly see that they will be guided, assisted, and encouraged throughout the entire process.
Daily goals and objectives are reviewed with all the participants. We have learned that keeping teachers on track is almost as hard as, and sometimes harder than, keeping students on track. Setting intermediate assignments and benchmarks helps to focus the project development process. Also, emphasis is placed on developing the content of the projects before attempting to develop the Web pages. Time and time again we see participants get so excited about the artistic aspects of creating a Web page that they lose sight of the overall goal of the assignment itself: creating an educational tool for their classroom. Thus, participants are asked to use the first part of the week to clearly define the purpose and content of their project. They need to demonstrate that the project has scientific and/or mathematical merit and that their students will be able to make use of the data they view or collect in a meaningful and valid way. A project is almost doomed for failure if the data analysis part is not worked out, understood, and clearly defined right at the start. There have been instances where teachers have spent considerable time developing a project around a source of data, only to find that the way they intended to use the data will not work or there is insufficient data to reach any meaningful conclusion.
Occasionally, outside experts are brought in to meet with groups to give a fresh look at their projects. Experts may be faculty members from Stevens, scientists from research organizations (e.g., an oceanographer from NOAA), industry experts (e.g., an EPA air quality regulator), or simply someone with relevant experience (e.g., a pilot). In some cases, field trips to a nearby location are also arranged for the teachers. This might be a field trip to a local stream to practice water testing or to a geology lab in a nearby university. Sometimes teachers will include recommendations for such a field trip in their project implementation with students.
As the summer institute progresses into its second week, participants start to develop the Web pages for their projects. Their goal is to have their Web site completed and published by the next to last day of the summer institute. The last few days can be frantic indeed. Teachers will often give up their lunch hour, come in early, stay late and even work at home to put the finishing touches on their Web projects. At this point they are usually so excited about what they have developed that they don't want to stop working on it. They are also motivated because of another reason.
The last day of the summer institute is a presentation day in which each group unveils their final projects. The presentation is a formal event that takes place in an auditorium filled with other participants, school administrators and many invited guests. A computer with Internet access and a projection system is set up for all groups to use for their presentations. As nerve-wracking as it can be, most teachers are very excited and extremely proud of what they have accomplished. Administrators and other members of the audience are usually quite impressed by what the teachers have accomplished during the short summer institute.
Completion of the summer institute d'esn't end teachers' involvement with CIESE staff. Teachers return to Stevens for additional help sessions throughout the next school year. We have found that these sessions, which teachers use to refine and reflect on their projects, are invaluable. Not only do teachers get time to work on their projects, but they also are able to share stories of successes and problems, and to learn from others' experiences. The program listserv is also used for ongoing support and follow-up.
As teachers try new things in their classrooms, they are encouraged to post their comments to the listserv about what worked and didn't work. In some programs, funding allows for site visits to the teachers' classrooms. This is a critical element to ensure effective classroom implementation of a project. We use this opportunity to help teachers implement part of their project during class time or to observe and provide feedback to a teacher about how they are using their project in class. The site visits are informal; they are meant to help the teachers in any way they need as they begin to integrate Internet technology into their classroom environment.
A Learning Process for Staff Developers
Over the four years that CIESE has been conducting this type of professional development, the model has been revised and refined. Experience has shown that many factors are critical to the success of the program and successful projectdevelopment by teachers. These include:
- Teachers must have access to the Internet in their school (preferably their classroom), allowing skill practice and project implementation.
- School principals and district administrators must give teachers their full support. Special recognition for teachers' efforts and accomplishments is essential.
- Teachers should acquire technical skills and explore examples of compelling Internet-based lessons through a yearlong workshop series prior to developing their own Internet-based curriculum projects.
- The projects that teachers choose should fit directly into their curricula and have scientific and mathematical validity. They should also be tied to local, state and national standards and to standardized tests as appropriate.
- A low staff-to-teacher ratio can be expensive but is very effective. An arrangement of one staff project leader per group is recommended, with subject matter experts available to assist as needed.
- One staff member who is very experienced with Web page development should be assigned to rove from group to group helping with the technical aspects of the Web page development process.
- Short morning presentations made by staff members or invited guests that are related to the day's goals and objectives can help focus the day's activities.
Measures of Success
Without question, teachers finish this program with a renewed sense of motivation and pride in what they have accomplished. During the process of constructing an Internet-based project they have acquired many new skills, and have been given the opportunity to create new material and assimilate new ideas. This is certainly one measure of success.
However, another reason this type of professional development has proven successful is that teachers develop a useful educational tool that fits into their curricula to use in their own classrooms. The program in its entirety is project-based, giving teachers a goal to produce a finished product. The program is not a series of stand-alone Internet training courses given to familiarize teachers with new technology. Instead, the technology is exploited to help teachers create what is useful to them ó educational material using resources not traditionally available in the classroom.
The program also exposes teachers to the many other Internet-based lessons and projects that can be substituted for more traditional lessons. It increases their repertoire of engaging lessons that involve students in using technology for authentic tasks such as collaboration, data analysis, making predictions and drawing conclusions. Some teachers implement their projects in class. Other teachers go on to become school technology coordinators or mentors for other teachers in their school because of the skills and knowledge acquired during the program. Some projects become so much a part of the school's curriculum that they continue to be implemented even after a teacher has left the school. These are all different, yet meaningful, measures of successes. The teachers who go through this program agree that it is an intensive, demanding experience, but is well worth it when they see their students (and themselves) excited about learning.
The benefits of this type of training experience are evident when these teachers describe how the experience changed the way they work and feel about computers. Most had minimal computer skills prior to starting the program. Harry Greenwald, a teacher at the Passaic Alternate School in Passaic, New Jersey, was asked by his students what "qualifications" he had to teach an integrated science/computer course. He now feels that he "is at least on par with his students." All of the teachers agree that the computer skills they learned have been invaluable and have also been put to practical use. They also cite another benefit: namely, that developing and implementing this kind of project fosters collaboration among their colleagues and other teachers around the world.
The following are a few examples of interdisciplinary projects developed by middle school teachers who participated in a CIESE collaboration during the 1998-99 school year.
The USS Battleship New Jersey
Mary Beth McGill
Horace Mann School, Bayonne, N.J.
During the fall of 1999, the USS Battleship New Jersey left its port of Bremerton, Washington and headed to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by way of the Panama Canal. Three teachers in Bayonne, New Jersey decided to track this historic voyage with their classes. The "USS Battleship New Jersey" project that they developed during the 1999 summer institute had students gathering and analyzing real-time weather data to determine whether or not weather factored into the ship's travels. Students were also able to track the exact location of the battleship by reading daily Web updates provided by a correspondent onboard the ship. With this information, they were able to calculate how far the ship traveled each day, determine its speed and course heading, and make predictions about the next day's course.
Like many teachers starting the development of an Internet-based project, they were concerned about having enough time to complete the project, and also about whether or not they could pull off this type of project in their classrooms. At the end of the summer institute, the teachers agreed that "meeting on a full-time basis for 10 days made it easier to practice and put our knowledge to use. It made it much easier to absorb the information, collect data, brainstorm, and gather ideas. It helped to develop a consistency of thought."
Follow-up with the teachers when they implemented the project during the fall of 1999 showed that even though they had normal difficulties such as other curriculum demands, scheduling problems and computer glitches, the "excitement and enthusiasm regarding the ship has been at an all time high." Their students referred to the ship as "our ship" and when asked what the most exciting part of the project was, replied that watching the ship go through the Panama Canal in real-time (through a live Web cam connection) was "the best." One student also remarked, with pride, that it was her teacher who actually developed the Web site that they were using throughout the project.
The parents of the students working on this project were also excited about the project. One of the teachers said in an e-mail, "Just thought you would like to know that last night was Parents' Night. We received an avalanche of positive feedback on our battleship project. One parent told us that she opened up our Web page in her office to show all her co-workers because she was thrilled with what her son was doing on the project. The enthusiasm has not diminished."
pH Acid Rain
Passaic Alternate School, Passaic, N.J.
Lincoln Middle School, Passaic, N.J.
Looking for ways to integrate an Internet-based project into their science and math curriculum, five teachers from the Passaic, New Jersey school system came up with a collaborative project in which students determined if the proximity of a fossil fuel power plant to a school's location affected the pH level of rainwater in that area. In this project, students determined the distance from their school to the nearest fossil fuel plant, determined the pH of three rainwater samples, and graphed and analyzed the data received from the 16 participating classes from around the country and world.
These teachers admit that without the training and project development experience, they would never have considered implementing a collaborative project. The project generated enthusiasm among their students for studying the traditional topic of acids and bases, which is part of their district's science curriculum. One teacher remarked how "excited the students were when they saw that a school in Turkey had signed up for the project." The project also ties in with the district's math, social studies, and language arts curricula. "Students use the data analysis component of the project, rather than the text book activities, to teach mean, median and mode. The city and country of each collaborating school is marked on a classroom map and is tied into current events and social studies."
Other projects developed during two 1999 summer institutes can be found on the following Web sites:
More information about CIESE can be found at:
Mercedes McKay is Senior Internet Curriculum Specialist at the Center for Improved Engineering and Science Education (CIESE) at Stevens Institute of Technology. She has developed and presented numerous professional development workshops and seminars for K-12 teachers on how to effectively use the Internet for science and math education. Currently, she directs several professional development projects for in-service K-12 teachers. Ms. McKay also develops K-12 Internet-based projects that use real-time data and that foster collaboration among students, teachers and experts from around the world.
Beth McGrath is Deputy Director of Stevens Institute of Technology's Center for Improved Engineering and Science Education (CIESE) where she manages program development and implementation and guides collaborations with K-12 schools and other educational partners. Ms. McGrath has written and spoken for national audiences on the impact of technology on the classroom experience of teachers. She graduated with honors from Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Mass Communications.
This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.