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CSULB Receives Science Education Grant to Benefit Bell Gardens Elementary Students

Published: December 1, 2008

Science is a subject that often receives less emphasis as schools focus on reading and math education, but a new program that integrates both science and language arts is under way in a collaboration between the Department of Science Education at CSULB and Bell Gardens Elementary School in the Montebello Unified School District.

Supported by a new $945,000 grant from the California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC) with funds from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the Bell Gardens Science Project is under the direction of William Straits and Susan Gomez-Zwiep, assistant professors of science education in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. The pair also is working with science education assistant professor Jim Kisiel and Nat Hansuvadha, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, Administration and Counseling in the College of Education.

“This is a sister grant to a current grant that we already had. A lot of the programmatic elements are based off the first CPEC grant which is in year two,” Gomez-Zwiep said. “The first grant was written as a K-2 professional development program for teachers in Montebello Unified and Garvey school districts for science. The grant provides content instruction for them, and pedagogy—what does it look like when it’s actually being taught.”

Teachers work with university faculty and receive 20 hours of summer training as well as participate in team teaching with other teachers and a facilitator during the school year to help them learn both science content as well as effective science teaching practices.

“Our new grant takes just about everything that Susan said and applies it to a single school,” Straits said. “Whereas the first grant was kindergarten, first and second grade at four schools, this one is whole school. Bell Gardens is kindergarten through fourth grade. We’ll be doing a lesson study and the summer trainings with content and pedagogy as Susan described, but it adds a couple of pieces.

“One of the key components is to bring in the community,” he continued. “So, it’s the whole school in the broadest sense and looking at families and the local community as well as informal science institutions (ISIs) in the broader community. How can local museums and aquaria and those types of institutions be useful and partner in the teaching of science to these children?”

Bell Gardens Elementary School has more than 1,000 students, many of whom are living at or below poverty levels, Gomez-Zwiep said. “The school literally sits at the footstep of the 710 and 5 Freeways. The playgrounds are primarily asphalt, the streets are very busy and noisy and there just is not a lot of natural setting out there. That’s one of the reasons for the ISIs. How do you actually get kids access to what science looks like when it’s not paved over in concrete, and how do we get families to feel comfortable in taking their kids there?” she explained.

“It’s actually a very tight-knit community,” she continued. “It’s a community that has traditionally been very supportive and involved with the schools, but the families do tend to have low education backgrounds; lots of families with maybe a high school degree but not much else. So, they don’t always feel comfortable going out in the world and trying on things that are really outside their norm. That’s one of the reasons for bringing in ISIs, especially into family science nights and saying, ‘This is for you, too.’

“The school has an enormous number of English language learners and their test scores have led to district policies that basically mean there is a lot of English language development (ELD) and language arts and math time, and not a lot of other things,” she noted. “That’s one of the reasons that we’re bringing science back in, too. These kids traditionally haven’t gotten science. The same thing is happening at middle school. You are talking about kids who aren’t really getting science instruction sometimes until eighth grade. How can you make it so that these children who have essentially been shut out of science content are allowed to come back in?

“The teachers are an amazing group,” Gomez-Zwiep remarked.” They’re incredibly hard working and are very dedicated, but they have been out of the science loop for a couple of years, trying to really move their kids forward in some of these high-stake assessments. We’re trying to bridge that gap and find ways to first make them feel comfortable with the content again and then increase their effectiveness in translating that back to kids.

“The one thing this grant also does is coordinate ELD time with science,” she explained. “The other grant does, too. It’s taking on a different tack. Instead of trying to find time to help these kids become proficient at English and find time to teach them science, what if we did it at the same time and science content becomes the discipline in which their English language development occurs? But it’s not easy. We’re finding as we do this is that the ELD philosophy and science education philosophy are very different and they do not blend as easily as you would think. Language instruction has very specific steps with well laid-out processes and procedures that don’t necessarily match hands-on inquiry.”

One of the program’s first partners is the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana. “For teachers, you have to learn how to get the most out of those experiences; otherwise, they become play day at the aquarium. Helping teachers learn to make that instructionally valuable is one of our goals,” Straits said.

“Families and parents are also a key part, so family science nights and take-home curricula that involve parents in the science learning that their children are doing during the day at school are also key components of this grant,” he added. “It’s like fun and collaborative homework that you do with other people in your family, so it’s hopefully more motivating and enjoyable.”