Partners in Learning

Washington University’s Institute for School Partnership provides great resources to help improve the quality of science and math education in public schools. (Sid Hastings)

Like many good ideas, the Institute for School Partnership (ISP) started small and grew along with its reputation for providing great resources to help improve the quality of science and math education in public schools.

Officially founded last September, ISP can trace its roots to the late 1980s when Sarah C.R. Elgin, PhD, the Viktor Hamburger Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences, decided she wanted to do something to help teachers in her children’s University City, Mo., school district keep up with the rapid changes under way in science.

Elgin began by pairing science teachers from middle school and high school with mentors from the university in a program dubbed “Science Outreach.”

“Many of the faculty are passionate about what they do,” notes Vicki May, former director of Science Outreach and now director of the new institute. “When they think about sharing more broadly — and since many of them are parents — they think of the school system.”

In the early 1990s, Science Outreach teamed up with the National Institutes of Health to create a curriculum for teachers on the subject of genetics.

“Genetics was moving ahead much faster than textbooks were keeping up,” May recalls. “So we wrote a curriculum (incorporating contemporary thinking around curriculum development) that continues to be used to this day with about 25,000 kids in the St. Louis region.”

May says the goal wasn’t so much “to cover everything in that topic area” (which may be impossible considering the speed at which scientific discovery is made), but rather “to help teachers become resourceful about knowing where to look” for information. This way, teachers become facilitators of learning.

Over time, even more institute-led initiatives focused on creating partnerships with relevant organizations external to the university, such as the NIH, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Washington University engineering graduate students, for example, have been teaching robotics at the University City Middle School as part of a joint effort of ISP and the NSF.

The Tyson Environmental Research Fellowship program gives high school students a firsthand look at what it’s like to be a field scientist. In the first year of the two-year program, students learn basic skills important to scientific inquiry in the natural world. In the second year, they spend the summer doing research with graduate students, postdoctoral scientists and faculty as part of teams at Tyson Research Center.

“You pick up so many things about what it really means to work as a researcher,” May says. “We’ve had a number of students who have gone through the program and are now majoring in science in college and being very successful.”

And that’s a partnership to be proud of — one where students find success in the network of programs that bind the university to the community at large.


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