University reaches out to develop mobile classrooms

The Monsanto Fund has awarded the University $3.7 million to develop, build and operate two custom mobile classrooms. WUSTL 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.

Through interactive experiences and exhibits, the program will help elementary-school students develop enthusiasm for learning and doing science. 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 test.

“We wanted to bring a new level of excitement to science education by creating something that doesn’t currently exist,” said Deborah Patterson, president of the Monsanto Fund. “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.”

Wide involvement

The science outreach office is one of many University groups involved in the project.

Graduate students in the Department of Education in Arts & Sciences did a review of early childhood programs and will develop evaluation plans.

Business graduate students Tanya Fagaly, Tycho Ferrigni, Max Harris and Jordan Stadler worked with Glenn M. MacDonald, Ph.D., the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and Strategy in the Olin School 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 A. Gericke, director of the Visual Communications Research Studio.

Gericke; D.B. Dowd, professor of art; and Heather A. Corcoran, assistant professor of visual communications, will provide their own design services as well as guidance and direction for the students.

“This program incorporates many of the intellectual resources here at the University,” said Edward S. Macias, Ph.D., executive vice chancellor, dean of Arts & Sciences, and the Barbara and David Thomas Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences.

“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.”

Program concept

The first vehicle will be designed for grades K-2 and will be developed this spring. It’s expected to make its first school visits in the fall. The second vehicle will be built next year.

To create the program concept, Victoria L. May, the University’s director of science outreach, convened a number of local science educators. 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,” May said. “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,” May said.

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 will also help teachers align their curricula with Missouri standards.

“Teachers are required to cover the Missouri grade-level expectations (GLEs),” said Mark R. Kalk, coordinator and instructor for science outreach at the University. “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.