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Middle school teachers to take part in science program at Illinois

Molly McElroy, News Bureau


Laura Beach
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Kwame Ross
Laura Beach, a May graduate in human development and family studies in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and staff member with the Prairie Flowers science outreach program, displays one of four global positioning receivers that will be contained in instructional kits available to teachers in Illinois middle schools. GPS technology can be used in activities such as geocaching, a form of treasure hunting, and ecocaching, which teaches children about the Earth and its history through visits to natural and historic sites.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Advancements in science education will bloom on the prairie as middle school teachers from mostly rural Illinois school districts converge at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on June 13 to participate in the two-week Prairie Flowers Program.

Prairie Flowers – with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and support from the School of Integrative Biology and the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Illinois – provides teachers with training on technology that can be used in the classroom and teaching strategies to improve students’ attitudes toward science. Teachers also earn credit toward maintaining their teaching certificates.

Since its inception in 1992, the program has drawn more than 100 teachers from 56 rural Illinois middle schools to the Urbana-Champaign campus. By offering continuing education for teachers, Prairie Flowers imparts scientific knowledge and provides access to equipment to middle school students otherwise forgotten as potential scientists.

“The Prairie Flowers program helps teachers learn how to get their students excited about science and coming to the university,” said Rebecca Adwell, the program’s manager.

This summer’s program will involve 28 participants, including current and retired teachers, as well as Illinois graduate students in the master’s of education program and undergraduate pre-service teachers.

Each morning, participants will gather in 176 Burrill Hall, 407 S. Goodwin Ave., Urbana, to learn background information for activities in the afternoons. Participants also will learn about new technology, such as the Illinois interactive report card, a new online report showing each school’s results from the Illinois Standards Achievements Test.

The report card details Illinois schools’ performance in meeting state education standards by providing an online database showing the percent of students in each school who meet or exceed ISAT standards in reading, math and science.

“Prairie Flowers participants will learn how to use the report card to monitor how their own class compares to others,” Adwell said. The report card also shows how each school compares with other schools within the same district and across the state.

Besides learning about new technology each year, teachers develop a science kit with lesson plans and equipment needed to for experiments in their classrooms. Participants may check out the kit during the school year. Over the 13-year lifespan of the program, 30 kits have been made, covering topics such as astronomy, electricity, plants and weather.

This summer, teachers will make a science kit that teaches global positioning technology. After learning background information on global positioning systems, participants will use GPS receivers for self-guided field trips. The Prairie Flowers Program has four GPS receivers that participants may check out to use with their classes.

GPS technology has many classroom applications, including geocaching. According to the official Web site on the sport, geocaching is a type of treasure hunting that attracts thousands of people across 215 countries. Students use GPS units to locate items such as books, compact discs, money and videos left by other geocachers.

A similar application is EcoCaching, an outdoor activity that lets students, educators and families learn about Earth and its history. EcoCaches include educational interpretation and information, such as latitude and longitude, to help find a location. Visitors to EcoCaches get to see natural and historic sites and how these resources are managed. They also learn how scientists gather evidence related to the environment.

Middle school classes also have used GPS for lessons in problem solving. “Sixth grade students at Perkins-Tryon Intermediate School in Perkins, Okla., used GPS to record the location of each piece of trash in their school yard,” Adwell said. “They used the data to decide where to place trash cans.”

This year’s Prairie Flowers participants also will learn to perform experiments about the properties of matter from representatives of the American Chemical Society. The chemistry experiments will be part of training teachers how to teach inquiry-based learning, an approach designed to increase student learning. “Through inquiry-based learning, students learn about using multiple approaches to answer the same question,” Adwell said.

Participating teachers, Adwell said, “become catalysts within their own schools, ”making a substantial impact on science education in rural middle schools. The teachers spread their knowledge to other teachers in their school and encourage other teachers to participate in the program, she said.

Some teachers even persuade their schools to buy their own scientific equipment following their experiences with the Prairie Flowers science kits. “Microscopes are the most commonly purchased piece of scientific equipment,” Adwell said. “Teachers say that at first they hesitated to use microscopes, but now they can’t imagine their classes being without one.”

Prairie Flowers also helps teachers by its idea-sharing network. Participants use e-mail to communicate with one another after they leave the Illinois campus. This network eases the isolation felt by science teachers in rural communities.

In 2002, the Maryland-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute awarded a four-year, $1.6 million grant to Illinois to provide outreach programs including Prairie Flowers. HHMI supports outreach programs at 44 universities with funds ranging from $1.2 million to $2.2 million over four years for each university.

“A primary strength of the HHMI-funded programs at Illinois is the extensive and well-managed outreach efforts,” said Andrew Quon, HHMI program officer of undergraduate science education grants. “The connections to the outreach initiatives already under way are very well developed and the collaborative commitments as outlined are solidly in place.”

“It is clear that this has been a very successful program with high impact on local middle school teachers, students and school districts,” Quon said. “Perhaps, more importantly, outreach programs like Prairie Flowers have the potential to strengthen K-12 science education nationally.”

For more information on the Prairie Flowers Program or to arrange a class visit, contact Rebecca Adwell at or 217-244-1984.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This year’s Prairie Flowers Program participants include Julie Courson of Mount Zion Intermediate School, Mount Zion; Jan Cunningham of St. Anthony Grade School, Effingham; Kathy Endres of Iroquois West Upper Elementary School, Thawville; Christina Field of Meridan Intermediate, Blue Mound; Jeanette Hickox of Jasper County Junior High, Newton; Jane Hwang of Canaan Academy, Urbana; Kristi Kestner of Milford Elementary School, Milford; Wendy Kreke and Amy Oseland of Teutopolis Grade School, Teutopolis; Chris Lawton of St. Paul School, Danville; Leslie Lloyd of Brownstown Elementary, Brownstown; Julie Shult of Meadowbrook Elementary, Forrest; Amy and Troy Simpson and Paul Wilson all of Glenn Raymond Middle School, Watseka; Cassie Smith of Greenville High School, Greenville; Jodi Speiser of Pawnee Grade School, Pawnee; Mary Webb of Cerro Gordo Elementary, Cerro Gordo; Nancy Wheeler of Connor Shaw Center, Peotone.