The Science Learning Network: Partnerships, Technology & Teacher Change

The Science Learning Network (SLN) project is an alliance of six science centers, six K-8 schools, and an industry partner, Unisys Corp., investigating how the resources, communication capabilities and collaboration opportunities provided by networked technologies can support and encourage K-8 teachers as they strive to strengthen the way they teach science and math.

The science centers and their partner schools are:

  1. The Franklin Institute Science Museum and William Levering School in Philadelphia, Pa.;
  2. Museum of Science, Boston and Hosmer Elementary School in Watertown, Mass.;
  3. Science Museum of Minnesota and the Museum Magnet School in Saint Paul, Minn.;
  4. Miami Museum of Science and Avocado Elementary School in Homestead, Fla.;
  5. Oregon Museum of Science & Industry and Buckman Elementary School in Portland, Ore.; and
  6. The Exploratorium, San Francisco and Ross School in Ross, Calif.

The SLN project's roots reach back to July 1993, when Unisys provided funding to The Franklin Institute to explore enhancement of an existing online bulletin board system (BBS) known as the Teacher Bulletin Board. At that time, individuals could access educational and exhibit information at The Franklin Institute by dialing into a 2400-baud commercial BBS running on a 386 PC. The institute and Unisys were interested in developing an educational outreach program to schools that would be based in science centers and utilized emerging network technologies.

The initial ideas for SLN grew out of this undertaking. In April 1994, with the addition of five science center partners, we submitted a funding proposal to the National Infrastructure in Education Program of the NSF. Our three-year proposal received $3.5 million from NSF and $2.5 million from Unisys. The Franklin Institute assumed the role of Principal Investigator and actual project implementation began on January 1, 1995.

Initial funding will support the project through December 31, 1997. We are presently halfway through a planned three academic-year implementation of SLN in our partner schools. June 1997 marked the end of our second year in each school. Funding to support the completion of academic year three (January-June 1998) of the school implementation will be provided by Unisys or from new grant submissions.

What Is the SLN Project's Mission?

The six SLN science centers and our corporate partner share a strong belief that improvement in K-8 science and math learning will only be accomplished through a teaching pedagogy that emphasizes students' active investigation of concepts, processes and phenomena. The SLN project is exploring how the use of networked technologies, in concert with extensive professional development activities, can be effective in moving teachers towards a more hands-on, inquiry-based pedagogy.

What Makes the SLN Project Unique?

Schools have long sought new ways to reform education. Science centers have traditionally brought creativity and energy to science and math education. Industry has supported educational initiatives in the community. The Science Learning Network is the first project to take these three existing realities and form a unique partnership that capitalizes on the increasing availability and power of network technology.

As we brought technology to the participating schools, we took an original approach. Our focus was on teachers managing technology for themselves and for their needs prior to managing technology for students. Teachers involved their students with the technology according to the teacher's pace. Some were quick to have students accessing online resources. Others were more comfortable with students using e-mail. Eventually, however, all teachers devised methods for using the technology as a teaching and learning tool.

Another reason this approach worked is because the SLN is about "science and math learning" first, and about "network" second. SLN staff insisted that the introduction and integration of technology be driven by a pedagogical philosophy. In that way, the technology could become the tool for teaching in an inquiry-based way.

Not many projects seek a partnership with one whole school community. The challenges of working with an entire faculty are great. In our case, the requirement was that SLN implementation be predicated on whole-school teacher participation, not just teachers with technology or inquiry expertise. In this way, we were able to build a community of colleagues who share their experiences in their school's hallways as well as online.

Installation of a school-wide local area network (LAN) as a project requirement enabled development of specialized online multimedia resources, communication mechanisms, and collaboration structures that support teachers as they change their teaching practice. The online nature of the project also facilitated the establishment of a common online documentation environment where project progress, accomplishments and activities are archived and shared.

What Is the Importance of Networked Technology?

The rhetoric that advocates "getting every school on the Information Superhighway" most often just means the provision of one modem-equipped computer, located in a library or media center, accessible to both teachers and students, and available only during scheduled (and often inconvenient) times. What possible effect will this kind of "networked technology" have on any aspect of teaching and learning?

The essence of the innovative use of technology within the SLN is the ubiquitous use of both local (LAN) and wide area (WAN) networking to support classroom learning. This means that each school has been equipped with an Ethernet LAN and all of the necessary hardware and software. The school network has a T1 connection to the Internet for high-bandwidth access to electronic mail, Telnet, FTP and the Web. There is a network server in each school dedicated to handling e-mail and Web document publishing. Each classroom has access to the network and each teacher has a powerful multimedia workstation or laptop computer for his or her own use and use by students. Some classrooms have multiple machines with access to the network, and some schools have computer labs featuring additional Internet access.

The presence of this technical infrastructure now enables a whole series of interactions previously impossible. Teachers have access to a huge online cache of resources -- deeper, more timely and more dynamic than what is normally found in classrooms or libraries. They can quickly view resources created by science centers, museums, other teachers, government agencies and expert curriculum developers. Communication capabilities enable synchronous (real time) and asynchronous (e-mail, etc.) conversations among teachers, subject experts and science center mediators who provide continuous support for changing teacher practice. Through routine and convenient access to both resources and communication, teachers find colleagues who share instructional interests and, as a result, collaborations develop. Networked technology (and its inherent capabilities) is thus becoming a crucial element in supporting teachers.

Passive consumption of information, whether delivered by technology or not, is unlikely to provoke teacher change.

However, the passive consumption of information, whether delivered by technology or not, is unlikely to provoke teacher change. Consider the fate of television access in schools. Television, as an educational technology to reform teaching practice, did not fail as a result of lack of content. Programs created by NOVA, National Geographic and PBS are unparalleled in their ability to present information in interesting and dynamic ways. New methods for teaching and learning may have taken root if, instead of just watching television, teachers and students were given cameras to create their own TV programs. This sort of active involvement with technology as a tool for learning is certainly a hallmark of the SLN project.

Consuming resources, responding to communications, and participating in collaborations are first steps in understanding the power of a networked classroom. Emerging SLN activities focus on teachers and students creating their own resources, initiating their own communications, and developing their own collaborations that support individual classroom and schoolwide investigations.

What Were the Implementation Difficulties?

As we strive to implement the SLN project goals, five significant obstacles have characterized the complexity of our collaboration.

Blending of Cultures
From the onset, our greatest challenge has been maintaining project focus and progress given the different cultural contexts of our six science centers, six schools and corporate partner. We struggled to find a working balance among the idiosyncratic values characterizing each institution. Through continuous face-to-face and electronic engagement we have developed a common language, a collective appreciation for diversity as strength, and a unified direction to insure successful completion of the project.

Developing SLN Staff Expertise
The project's goals demand staff expertise in the areas of pedagogy, teacher professional development, school change, technology management, online resource creation, and project administration. At each science center, creating an effective SLN project team was a notable challenge. Budget constraints encouraged creative solutions that saw the formation of an SLN staff drawn from across normally sacred institutional boundaries. While initially such diversity in staffing impacted our collaborative endeavors, it has now become significant in moving the SLN work throughout each science center.

Deploying Technical Infrastructure
The first 10 months of the project were consumed in establishing working technical infrastructures at both science centers and schools. Everything from installing LANs and WANs to configuring servers and the workstations of teacher and staff was undertaken and completed. These technical efforts are ongoing as we maintain the systems now in place and slowly work with teachers and school administrators so local maintenance and administration can be successful for the long run.

Working with Whole Schools
Science centers have been leaders in post-collegiate teacher education that focuses on the teaching of science and math using a pedagogy of hands-on, inquiry-based teacher and student investigations. Thousands of individual K-8 teachers have benefited from professional development activities sponsored by science centers.

Science centers have less experience, however, in working with whole school staffs on schoolwide professional development. The SLN's emphasis on whole-school involvement necessitated that each science center concretely rethink and redesign their professional development approach. The challenge was to create interactions that were ongoing, supported by technology, and involved a significant portion of a school's staff, not just those who were self-selected or predisposed to new ways of teaching science and math.

Realizing the Nature of Change
Each SLN partner has been impatient for growth and change. Achieving organizational, technical, pedagogical and collaborative milestones has been only mildly successful in lessening this impatience. But we have succeeded in overcoming naive beliefs about change. We are now more comfortable seeing change as evolutionary. It is affected by mutations (the custodian and nurse want to participate), natural disasters (rain wipes out the network), natural selection (standardized tests are scheduled), and lack of resources (all the hardware money is gone). Understanding the nature of change has made us more realistic is planning for the future.

How Have Participants Benefited?

The SLN project was designed to impact teacher and staff participants in each partner school, personnel in each science center and a broader general audience as well. The latter is achieved by presenting the educational resources on the Science Learning Network Web site ( After two years of work, we see significant benefits in teacher growth -- both towards a new pedagogy for teaching and the integration of networked technology.

Teachers have become facile users of electronic mail and the Web. They rely on daily interactions with the online world to provide currency and background information on topics in all disciplines, not just science and math.

Teachers have become active publishers, highlighting the work of their students and documenting their pedagogical successes. Science and math activities more often incorporate inquiry approaches to teaching. And, while intra-school collaboration is still nascent, inter-school collaboration is booming. Additionally, as more school faculty become involved, veteran SLN teachers are beginning to take on new roles as mentors and leaders within their school.

After two years, we see significant benefits in teacher growth -- both towards a new pedagogy and in integration of networked technology.

Science center personnel have been equally affected by the SLN project. Participation was a terrific opportunity for each institution to experiment with its place and mission in the online world. SLN staff at each science center represented a ready source of experience and information about the emerging network technologies. In many cases, infrastructure expenditures made possible by the SLN provided science centers wide access to the powers of electronic communication and information discovery. Each center built on this opportunity to expand their science education mission via new programs, establishing their own Web sites, creating additional online collaborations and new fund-raising initiatives.

The presence of the SLN heralded the creation of a new breed of science center professionals with job descriptions that contain words like multimedia, online resource production, educational technology, online learning and Web design. Science centers overall are using the knowledge gained from SLN to help them define their role in a more networked society.

Those in the general public with science and math education interests have also benefited from the SLN work. Through the SLN Web site and the Web sites of each school and science center, resources developed to support inquiry-based investigations are available to all with Web access. SLN staff are continually creating new resources, locating useful sites, and filtering appropriate online content for presentation to our online visitors.

This aspect of the SLN project has been the slowest to mature. Efforts in the upcoming year-three school implementation will focus on working with teachers to develop online resources that more closely align with emerging national standards in science and math. Resources aligned in such a way will have great usefulness for a very broad audience.

Has the SLN Project Been Successful?

After two years of implementation, we are confident in reporting that the SLN is well on its way to achieving its project goals. We have operational technical infrastructure in our schools and science centers. We have successfully added new teachers to the original SLN cadre. We see evidence of teachers and students using networked technology on a daily basis to support classroom instruction. We see science and math instruction more often reflecting inquiry approaches. We have developed a wide variety of online resources that support science and math instruction. We have also developed significant staff expertise in emerging educational technologies to support activities throughout our science centers.

The immediate future calls for completion of the second school year with a focus on developing online resources and structures that encourage inter-school collaboration. The 1997 summer institute is adding a final cadre of school participants and will help returning teachers better articulate the link between telecomputing and inquiry-based teaching across the curriculum.

The third school year implementation will emphasize increased collaboration activities, teacher resource production, and preparing SLN teachers to become mentors for technology efforts in other district schools.

Three Areas for Extending Impact

The SLN staff from each science center and our partners from Unisys have actively engaged in planning for the post-NSF grant phase of the project. Three areas offer the most potential for extending the SLN's impact.

Demonstration Schools
Each SLN school is well on its way to becoming a demonstration school for the successful implementation of technology in support of teaching practice. There exists a wonderful opportunity to move the lessons learned at the SLN schools to other schools in each district. Likewise, each science center has the opportunity to leverage expertise developed through the SLN project to become a valuable resource for the school district. In fact, this knowledge is exportable -- valuable for any school district tackling the role for technology in their instructional program.

Online Resources
Future enhancements are envisioned that will establish the SLN Web site as a prominent online location for resources, communications and collaboration opportunities that support inquiry-based science and math teaching. The SLN Web site will be the hub where teachers, students and the general public will be able to link to a storehouse of resources to support their interests in scientific knowledge and investigation.

Technology Learning Leadership
The SLN project stimulated six science centers to become industry leaders in integrating networked technology into the fabric and mission of each institution. In each of our institutions, efforts to develop and plan for new exhibition and programming must now consider the value and reality of the networked world.

Traditional ways of attracting audiences and serving our educational mission are about to change as we integrate new media, new networks, and new ways of gaining access to science knowledge and investigations. The Science Learning Network has a valuable role to play in continuing to lead the way and defining the path for appropriate applications of emerging technologies in science centers.

The Science Learning Network's Web site:

Stephen Baumann, the Director of Educational Technology Programs at The Franklin Institute Science Museum, is the Principal Investigator for the SLN project. A former elementary school teacher and curriculum developer, Baumann holds a master's degree in Science Education from the University of Virginia. E-mail: [email protected]

Karen Elinich is currently investigating the educational role and value of telecomputing as a tool for learning as Technology Learning Programs Director at The Franklin Institute Science Museum. Through the SLN project, she supports teachers as they begin to learn about the Internet and explore its potential. Before joining the museum, Elinich taught science and language arts on high school and middle school levels. A Carnegie Mellon graduate, Elinich also has experience in the field of educational publishing. E-mail: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.