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May 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 8

SPARCS Ignites Multicultural Science Education

A curriculum centered on the interests of learners generates options that attract all kinds of students to science.
In a recent biology class in Omaha, Nebraska, some students chose to dissect animals. Others negotiated with the teacher to conduct studies of live animal behavior. Small groups of students chose the animals they would study and agreed upon a list of questions to answer.
While one group was dissecting a cat, a student commented, “I heard they steal them from around people's houses. That could be somebody's pet!” Suddenly concerned, another student asked, “Where did this cat come from?” From a commercial supplier, the teacher replied. The student then asked, “So where do they get the cats?” “How could you find out?” the teacher asked. A telephone call to the supplier brought the report, “From the Humane Society.”
The students' concern led to a trip to the local Humane Society. During the visit, the staff introduced students to animal health issues and the mathematics of unchecked population growth.
As a result, the students realized that irresponsible human behavior results in many euthanized animals. When the students returned to the classroom, they wrote a letter to the local newspaper encouraging responsible pet ownership.
After completing their dissections or behavior studies, groups presented their findings to the entire class. Students recorded the presentations on videotape for sharing with parents and peers.

The SPARCS Program

The students in the class just described were not honors students. In fact, they were summer school students who had failed biology during the previous school year. Still, they learned successfully because they explored issues, created explanations, and learned complex information about topics they really cared about.
In most traditional science classrooms, the outcomes are quite different. Many students find science learning uninteresting because they see no relation between science content and their lives. They may try to learn science because their teacher is charismatic or they have been socialized to be compliant, but science still seems boring, useless, and incomprehensible. Most students take only the science courses required for high school graduation or college admission, and upper-level science courses most commonly enroll white males from relatively prosperous families.
This unsatisfactory pattern, in essence, was common in Omaha until five years ago, when SPARCS began. This program (Solving Problems and Revitalizing Curriculum in Science) is a partnership formed between students and faculty at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the science teachers and administrators of the Omaha Public Schools.
With modest monies from Eisenhower funds and the National Science Foundation's Teacher Enhancement Program, the SPARCS program has provided two- and four-week summer workshops and ongoing teacher support systems that have created a community of co-learners. Within this community, university and school personnel conduct collaborative research, and teachers carry out action research. These inquiries have revealed many ways to attract and hold all kinds of students, develop scientific literacy, and provide access to scientific careers for all students, but particularly for students of color, females, and the poor.
Since SPARCS began five years ago, some factors have remained constant. The city's science teachers remain predominantly white, middle class, and traditionally educated. Approximately one-third of the students, on the other hand, are persons of color, and about half of the students have lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Teaching loads and school budgets have remained steady, too.
Thus, it seems that the approaches developed through SPARCS are the variable that has caused recent positive effects in middle school and high school science classes. While the full impact of the program probably will not be known for another five years, teachers already report increased satisfaction and success in classrooms; improved student engagement, performance, and attitudes toward science; and dramatic decreases in student referrals for misconduct during science classes. In one high school, voluntary enrollment in science has climbed from 65 to 90 percent. Throughout the district, principals' evaluations of science teachers have grown increasingly favorable. Both formative and summative assessments have confirmed that teacher collaboration is becoming a norm.

Making Change Happen

Most participants in the initial summer workshops came to SPARCS because they felt unsuccessful with many of their students. These teachers were willing to examine their practice and schools, learn about the students in their classrooms, and embark on a journey of change.
  • the science concepts and principles taught are centered on the lives and cultures of students;
  • content is interdisciplinary;
  • students solve intellectually satisfying problems;
  • instruction requires active, collaborative student work culminating in visible, high-quality performances;
  • instruction begins with questions about phenomena (rather than with facts to be memorized); by investigating their questions, students construct new understandings;
  • the teacher's role evolves from telling to coaching and mentoring; and
  • the teacher consistently communicates the expectation that all students can learn.
Participation in the SPARCS workshops has steadily increased. In the first year, 14 people attended. Last year, 59 took part. To date, approximately 65 percent of the city's 130 public school science teachers have participated in the workshops and teacher support initiatives.
The kind of support provided to teachers throughout the school year illustrates how the program has evolved and grown. At first, a few university people sat in on teachers' classes, took notes, asked questions, and suggested options. As more and more teachers began to participate in the program, this approach grew less feasible, so we began to hold after-school meetings followed by a dinner. Now, a peer mentoring system is increasingly providing the support for classroom change. In short, the trend is toward greater teacher ownership of the improvement process.
  1. Establish long-term, respectful, and diverse partnerships. SPARCS began with the assumption that no one has “the Truth” about how science ought to be taught. Instead, we blended our theoretical and practical perspectives. We also developed contacts with science professionals in the community. All this diversity has provided many alternative perspectives and has thereby increased our power.
  2. Provide a learning community for teachers. In our learning community, we create new curriculums. We begin with small (often timid) changes, sharing them and respectfully critiquing our own and one another's work. In the process, no one tries to convince anyone else that he or she is “wrong,” but instead, we suggest likely alternatives. For instance, if a teacher interprets a student's ritualized dress and cocky walk as a challenge to authority, we may point out that both may be an attempt to be defined as belonging to a particular peer group.SPARCS is based, too, on constructivist notions for all learners, including ourselves. Hence, we do not prescribe how teachers ought to change or how they should teach. Rather, we offer options for multicultural teaching practice. We expect that teachers will gradually invent, adopt, or adapt whatever will be personally useful.Always, our community responds to the seminal question, “Why would students want or need to know that?” An unacceptable answer is “For the next science class.” We believe that all learning is voluntary and that students will volunteer only when science classwork is based on their interests. Our focus is learning about students, families, and communities so that we can connect science to real life.
  3. [[[[[ **** LIST ITEM IGNORED **** ]]]]]
  4. Support teachers as they innovate. SPARCS teachers are making radical changes. For example, they are learning when not to answer questions and when to admit, “I don't know. How could we find out?” Since adapting to change is not easy, SPARCS teachers need continual support, which they get from quarterly meetings, university staff observers' nonjudgmental feedback, and contact with colleagues in their buildings.
A few teachers who have attended summer workshops have not been able to learn to teach in nontraditional ways. Most teachers, though, have continued to progress and have asked for more contact with their peers and SPARCS staff. In response, the program has created a core of lead teachers who continue to develop summer workshops.
The program has also arranged for seven of the lead teachers to be released half time. These teachers have assembled thematic units in support of national reform goals for science education. The lessons and supporting material are available on computer to all of the district's science teachers. This year, lead teachers are also mentoring, sharing and field-testing curriculums, providing feedback on student response to teacher changes, and conducting action research.

Leadership for Sustained Change

  1. University faculty and public school educators share a vision about the aims of the district's science program. Since one district goal is “for our students to be first in science,” it is imperative to improve science learning among students who have been underrepresented in upper-level courses. SPARCS was designed to address the district's goals.
  2. Central office administrators support SPARCS. The assistant superintendent, director of secondary education, and science supervisor were consulted on the development of SPARCS, and all three administrators became committed to the project. Their help is valuable because (1) they interpret the science education vision and connect it with other curriculum goals in the district; (2) they can look beyond the external funding years and link the SPARCS curricular and instructional changes to sustaining school structures; and (3) they hold many keys to implementation. The science supervisor, for instance, has monitored day-to-day operations, arranged meetings, secured substitutes, and communicated with teachers and principals.
  3. Principals help to facilitate, promote, and assess the program. Principals facilitate the program by providing essential logistical support such as the substitute teachers who are needed when teachers must work outside their buildings. Principals also support alternative views of teaching and learning.
In various ways, principals have also helped to promote the program. Some have recommended that specific teachers attend the program's summer workshops. In one high school, where SPARCS teachers have been designing two-year unified science sequences, the principal has worked to bring all science teachers into the effort.
Finally, building-level administrators are in an excellent position to assess the changes in teachers, students, and the SPARCS program itself. Principals have reported, for example, that (1) teachers are getting better at engaging students in higher-level thinking; (2) it is becoming more difficult to distinguish a “regular” from a lower-track “fundamentals” science classroom; and (3) teachers are growing more expert. On a recent SPARCS formative evaluation, a principal commented, “Ordinary teachers become good; good teachers become better.”

Future Initiatives

SPARCS' ambitious future agenda includes seeking external funds for continued innovation; organizing thematic units into institutionalized course sequences in more schools; coordinating the sequences among grade levels; building additional civic and scientific community support for the program; supporting peer mentoring; integrating science with other disciplines; developing the leadership capabilities of larger numbers of teachers; and sustaining existing partnerships.
Already, SPARCS has touched off enthusiasm, innovation, and change in a culturally diverse school system. Even so, we know that we cannot declare victory and relax, for nature in Nebraska has taught us something: just as a spark from lightning on the midwestern plains can ignite a blazing prairie fire, a sudden rain can quickly put that fire out. SPARCS is one fire that must not be extinguished.
End Notes

1 The National Science Foundation funded SPARCS in 1991. Parts of the grant provided released time for teachers and stipends to teachers for summer workshops.

Judith Johnson has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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