A Grassroots Approach to Educational Partnerships


Partnerships have revitalized large segments of American education in the past decade or two. Government, industry, institutions of higher education, libraries, cultural institutions and school districts have joined forces to accomplish dramatic changes for education in a world in which sustaining our way of life requires an educated workforce. Furthermore, in an age of massive social realignments, increasing costs and shortages of appropriate talent, the notion of the stand-alone public school system has become untenable. Increasingly, telecommunications and other computer-enabled new media, such as the Internet, break down walls of isolation to allow both national and global partnerships for improvement.

However, the program des-cribed here takes a different approach to the notion of partnerships. The Rose-Hulman Instit-ute of Technology, a private college in Terre Haute, Ind., offers degrees in science, mathematics and engineering to about 1,600 undergraduates. Thanks to fund-ing from the Lilly Endowment in early 1999, Rose-Hulman established a partnership with the six middle schools from the Vigo County School Corp. (VCSC). The program, Enabling Academic Excellence Through Computer-Mediated Learning, has as its goal to increase middle school childrens' competencies in science, mathematics and pre-engineering by using advanced instructional technologies as enablers for active, inquiry-based learning.

Today, educational partnerships are many and varied. In 1995, over 2,300 such programs were in existence (Wilbur and Lambert 1995). That number may well have trebled in the intervening years. We derive both our concept and our enactment from Ernest Boyer (1981) who defines a partnership as moving beyond organizational collaboration. Essentially, in Boyer's rhetoric, a viable partnership has reached a level of symbiosis characterized by five basic principles:

  • Agreement on common problems;
  • Breaking down of the traditional academic pecking order;
  • Commitment to a sharp project focus;
  • Recognition and rewards for all participants; and
  • Leadership that values actions over bureaucratic regulations.

We think that such features flourish best in close collaboratives between individuals or among small groups. Thus, over the course of three years, we elected to support 18 grassroots liaisons with the idea that the bottom-up influence of these innovating cadres would mediate the integration of advanced technologies not only into their own classrooms, but also into their broader institution.

Teachers and Technology

Emerging instructional techno-logies are enticing, but middle schools face two major hurdles: building a systemic infrastructure to provide access for all, and re-investing in human potential in the form of teacher training for tech-nical skills and pedagogical renewal. Thus, we used a two-pronged approach that mirrored these major concerns in working with our six local middle schools. First, we improved and equalized access to advanced technologies by pur-chasing hardware and software, and helping to build the information technology base. At the end of our three year grant, we will have transitioned approximately $500,000 in computer-related equipment into the middle schools.

However, merely providing hardware and software d'es not ensure that either is used effectively. Education cannot make the same mistake that business did in the 1990s of focusing on purchasing equipment while disregarding the human element (Strassmann 1997). Betty Collis (1996), a leading researcher in instructional technology for educational change, convincingly argues that the teacher is the key to "the eventual success or lack of success of any computers-in-education initiative." Thus, all components of the program concentrate on helping teachers to see computers as powerful devices for expanding their own dynamic presence in the classroom.

Our notion of how to help was shaped by a daylong conclave held on the Rose-Hulman campus during the summer of 1998. Middle school teachers, administrators and Rose-Hulman faculty clustered into working groups to consider barriers and enhancements for mediating learning through computers in the classroom. Two compelling points emerged from our focus groups:

  • There is no single magic bullet for educating young people in science, math and pre-engineering. However, harvesting the creativity, energy and talents of individuals may best be accomplished through nurturing many small projects rather than supporting a single large program.
  • Ultimately, programs cannot substitute for the personal commitment and the unique talents and energies of dedicated teacher-leaders. Numerous anecdotes recount, and empirical studies corroborate, that under-achieving students need strong mentoring and a sustaining human support network to set and achieve career goals.

Collaborations Empower Individuals and Ideas

Taking these observations as guiding principles, our model for a partnership is organic or constructivist in nature. It incorporates the notion of negotiation, nurturing and sharing, rather than drawing from a programmatic or enterprisewide frame of reference. Ranging from forming teams, designing instruction and deploying products, the process is one of mutual respect and sharing of strengths.

In early January of each year, Rose-Hulman faculty submit proposals outlining their background, and giving examples of the areas and activities they would like to pursue with a group of middle school teachers. This collection of proposals is then submitted to the VCSC, where a panel matches the offered expertise with the demonstrated interests and characteristics of the individual middle schools. Participants from each institution then meet in their respective teams to negotiate and finalize a plan of action for their alliance. Each team has at least $25,000 in funding that can be used at their discretion to purchase materials, attend conferences, pay tuition for short courses, spend on summer stipends and the like. Actual work begins at the end of May, with a substantial portion of the design and development taking place over the summer. The innovations are then fielded during the academic year and assessed as the activities move along. At least one gathering of all participants is held per year to share experiences and insights.

Advanced technology has always been a part of the various curricula in engineering education. However, Rose-Hulman faculty are now intensely engaged in a fundamental shift from using computers as instrumentation to viewing information technologies as cognitive tools that can revolutionize course delivery and student involvement. Despite our clear advantage over the middle schools in availability of technology, the partnerships operate as an equilibrium because Rose-Hulman faculty are grappling with many of the same concerns as our precollegiate counterparts. Also, in working with the VCSC, we respect the wishes of the individuals, rather than instantiating a preconceived notion for driving curricular or pedagogical change through computerization. Three examples, drawn from the 12 partnerships fielded thus far, illustrate the variety of collaborations we are now supporting.

Example 1:

Scientific Visualization and Concept Formation

Howard McLean of Rose-Hulman chemistry/geology and William Wilkinson at Honey Creek Middle School have teamed up to use the technologies of scientific visualization - particularly simulations, synoptic overviews, interactive multimedia, graphical data reductions and laboratory information management software to improve middle school learners' understanding of the concepts of science. Equipment purchased to transform Wilkinson's traditional classroom into a multimedia-enriched science laboratory includes: a ceiling-mounted digital projector with VCR, high-end digital cameras for preparing images, the best-quality laptop for preparing classroom presentations, and advanced software packages for manipulating visualization of data and information. While Wilkinson was technologically proficient prior to participating in the collaborative, mentoring from McLean has deepened his understanding of how to augment the learning process using such advancements. Additionally, the program has funded Wilkinson's taking a course in computer science at nearby Indiana State University.

Example 2:

Qualitative and Quantitative Explorations in Social Studies

William Seyfried of Rose-Hulman economics partnered with Jeff Lough at Woodrow Wilson Middle School during the 1999-2000 academic year; Dale Bremmer of Rose-Hulman economics entered into the collaboration during the 2000-2001 academic year. The aim of this team was to use advanced information technology to enhance global awareness, geography, economics and major institutions such as political, social and religious structures.

In addition to the Web-delivered activities, the project covered the costs of 30 laptops and of network-ing a classroom, providing enough ports so that 30 students can be logged in simultaneously. It also included purchasing a digital projector and CD-ROM production capabilities. This was the first fully-networked classroom versus computer lab in the Vigo County system. Computers in the classroom enable innovation in curriculum and pedagogy different from what can be achieved by having a class use a school's shared computer lab. The computer-mediated activities developed by the team directly support all of the state-mandated objectives for social studies proficiencies.

An especially exciting dimension of this partnership is the spin-off or "echo" collaborations it has fostered. For example, one of Lough's eighth-grade classes has adopted a first-grade class at an elementary school located within walking distance of their middle school. The older students develop learning modules to teach mathematical principles and quantitative reasoning within a social science context. They then transfer these materials to CD-ROMs for use at the elementary school. Additionally, about every two weeks the eighth-graders pack up their notebook computers and visit with the elementary school to teach, in a one-on-one context, units on computer skills, mathematical manipulation and problem-solving abilities using global awareness scenarios learned in their own social studies curriculum.

Example 3:

Leveraging a Technology-Rich Environment

After being at the same location since 1917, Sarah Scott Middle School moved into a new building in September 1999. The modern facility came equipped with new computers; networking; a media center; in-house, closed-circuit TV and production studio; advanced display devices in all classrooms; and electronic library facilities. We are working with this technology-enabled school to optimize the already installed base. Toshiyuki (Tosh) Yamamoto served on the Rose-Hulman faculty from 1992-1998, and served as an adjunct professor during 1998-2000. In 1997, he began work on a doctorate in educational technology at Indiana State University. He brings both technical knowledge and pedagogical perspective to a partnership with Sarah Scott Middle School.

As a first phase, Yamamoto is helping to identify and purchase the hardware and software that ensure maximum usefulness, tie together all the pieces and facilitate staff development. Examples of pur-chases include: three backup DVD players for the networked video broadcasting system, site licenses for Microsoft FrontPage, a Web site development package, filtering software for Internet browsers, and video adapters for 35 iMacs.

Among other things, Yamamoto provides:

  • Teacher training (workshops and/or shorter time-frame situations, such as after-school mentoring/consultation);
  • Software selection and evaluation, including locating worthwhile Web sites and CD-ROM materials;
  • Presentations on advanced educational technologies (e.g., automated test taking, interactive Web-delivered applications) and effective use in the classroom;
  • Mentoring teachers on maximizing the use of the Internet as a teaching resource;
  • Using software development packages to develop situation-specific software;
  • Partnering with an individual or a cluster of teachers to build classroom modules;
  • Help with machine, software and network configurations for currently owned equipment;
  • Help developing a technology acquisition plan for future needs; and
  • Teaching introductory classes on general computer use.

More than just a one-way knowledge transfer, this partnership serves as an excellent illustration of the reciprocal relationship embedded in all our teams. Yamamoto is able to use his work with Sarah Scott as part of the practicum requirement for his advanced degree. Furthermore, this exposure to the precollegiate environment and to adolescent learners has opened new outlets for Yamamoto's proven talents in designing college-level software for Japanese language instruction.

Connecting with the Future

The National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching in the 21st Century's recent report, "Before It's Too Late" (September 2000), was unequivocal in its message. The way to improve learning in science, mathematics and technology is to improve teaching. And better teaching can be achieved through better preparation, professional development and working conditions for our nation's teachers. The outreach organizers believe emphasizing the human element mediates both technology and knowledge transfer at a critical time in American education.

With an increasing investment in computer-enabled learning, all partners involved in the program are at the threshold of exciting opportunities. While for some institutions and individuals challenges bring uncertainty, these partnerships are committed to managing change through on-going reinvestment in the potential of people through grassroots initiatives and through encouragement for those willing to innovate. In addition, the organizers viewthe collected knowledge and experience of the teams who have made the process work as an extraordinary resource. Comments or inquiries on sharing learned lessons are welcome.

Patricia Carlson is the director of K-12 outreach at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Her areas of expertise include cognitive design of multimedia and the integration of advanced technologies into the classroom. She has worked with the NASA-sponsored Classroom of the Future and as an Air Force University resident researcher with the San Antonio Public School systems to transition technology and train teachers in pedagogical innovations. Carlson is currently working under a National Science Foundation grant to develop a computer-mediated learning environment that teaches writing as an analog for scientific problem solving.

E-mail: [email protected].


The author wishes to express her gratitude to the Lilly Endowment for its generous grant in funding the program described in this article.


Boyer, Ernest L. 1981. "School/College Partnerships That Work." Current Issues in Higher Education 1: 4-10.

Collis, Betty. 1996. "The Internet as an Educational Innovation: Lessons from Experience with Computer Implementation." Educational Technology 36(6): 21-30.

Strassmann, Paul. 1997. The Squandered Computer: Evaluating the Business Alignment of Information Technologies. New Canaan, CT: The Information Economics Press.

Wilbur, F.P. and L.M. Lambert. 1995. Linking America's Schools and Colleges: Guide to Partnerships and National Directory. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.