The Monsanto Fund has awarded Washington University $3.7 million to develop, build and operate two custom mobile classrooms. Washington University will lead a partnership, including the St. Louis Science Center, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Saint Louis Zoo, and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, to create and provide programming on the vehicles.
The program will help young elementary school students develop enthusiasm for learning and doing science, through interactive experiences and exhibits. It will also assist teachers in doing classroom science investigations through workshops and materials loans. The program is designed to reach underrepresented public schools, and districts that have low average scores on the third grade science Missouri Achievement Program (MAP) test.
Deborah Patterson, president of the Monsanto Fund, explained the idea behind the project. “We wanted to bring a new level of excitement to science education by creating something that doesn’t currently exist,” said Patterson. “We came to Washington University because of their experience working hand-in-hand with teachers to effect positive change in the classroom, as well as their research and evaluation expertise.”
Development of the first vehicle, which will be designed for grades K-2, will take place this spring. The second vehicle will be built next year. The mobile classroom will be out on St. Louis streets in the fall, as it begins making its first school visits.
To create the program concept, Victoria May, director of science outreach, convened a group of local science educators, including Sally Saldaña, art teacher at Maplewood-Richmond Heights Elementary School, Janice Shayne, K-5 gifted education teacher at Parkway School District Oakbrook Elementary School, and Vhaness Brinker, consultant for the St. Louis Public Schools Vashon Education Compact. Educators from other institutions, including Carol Valenta, senior vice president of education, exhibits, and programs for the St. Louis Science Center; Luther Williams, the William T. Kemper director of education and interpretation, and Barbara Addelson, senior manager of the education division, both of the Missouri Botanical Garden; Jim Jordan, associate curator of education for the Saint Louis Zoo; and Charles Granger, professor of biology and education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis; provided their experience.
The group agreed that the project had to offer more in-depth content than a single visit could provide. “We didn’t feel it was enough to just go to a school and have kids come in for one activity,” explained May. “We wanted the project to be a starting point so schools could do more investigative science.”
The program includes a pre-visit workshop, where teachers can learn the basics of doing science that allows students to explore and ask questions. This type of teaching, called inquiry, can be challenging because it is time consuming and requires teachers to prepare materials. The Monsanto program will help bridge these constraints by allowing teachers to borrow a science materials kit to use in their classrooms.
“By the time the mobile classroom comes to the school, the kids will be ready to do an extension of the activities they did in class,” said May. A program coordinator will be based at a warehouse at the St. Louis Science Center’s Taylor Community Science Resource Center, and will provide scheduling support, teacher assistance, and science kit refurbishment.
The Monsanto program also will help teachers align their curriculum with Missouri standards. “Teachers are required to cover the Missouri grade level expectations,” said Mark Kalk, coordinator and instructor for science outreach. “We realized that we could provide hands-on activities around the GLEs for grades K-2.” The GLEs for primary grades cover six areas: earth systems, universe, living systems, matter and energy, force and motion, and ecology.
“This program incorporates many of the intellectual resources here at the university,” said Edward S. Macias, executive vice chancellor, dean of Arts & Sciences, and Barbara and David Thomas Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences. He added, “As part of our mission to be a community resource, we are committed to helping local schools better prepare their students in science. An enrichment program like this one can be an important first step.”
In addition to the science outreach office, other Washington University departments are involved in the project. Graduate students in the department of education did a review of early childhood programs, and will develop evaluation plans. Olin School of Business graduate students Tanya Fagaly, PMBA 15; Tycho Ferrigni, PMBA 14; Max Harris, MBA ’05; and Jordan Stadler, MBA ’05; worked with Glenn MacDonald, professor of business, to research costs and operations.
As the project moves into the design phase, faculty and students from the School of Art’s Visual Communications Research Studio will develop concepts to demonstrate how the vehicle might communicate its content. The studio will also explore several approaches to the design of the curricular materials, which will be an important form of communication between the program and teachers.
“This project is a perfect fit for our skills in visual information design, as well as in brand development,” said Scott Gericke, director of the Visual Communications Research Studio. Gericke, D.B. Dowd, professor of art, and Heather Corcoran, assistant professor of visual communications, will provide some of their own design services as well as guidance and direction for the students.