RI-ITEST conference one of several science education
activities at RIC this summer

Teachers and students from public high schools across the state gathered at RIC for the second annual Rhode Island Information Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (RI-ITEST) Conference, the first of several science education activities to be held on-campus this summer.

Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, the four-day conference is part of an ongoing professional development initiative aimed at encouraging the use of computer models in the classroom through innovative software demonstrating scientific concepts at the molecular level.

In addition to participating in two days each of technology training and practicum during the conference, teachers receive a total of four graduate credits over the course of two years while they complete an online course and attend workshop meetings.

James Magyar
Among the attendees were 37 teachers who began the training last year and returned during the week of June 29 and July 2. They assessed the learning of approximately 3,280 students who used software designed by the Ergopedia company and developed by the Concord Consortium in their physics, biology or chemistry curriculums, said James Magyar, chair of the RIC Physical Sciences Department and professor of chemistry and physical sciences.

A second group of 75 new teachers began learning how to use and incorporate the software into their teaching with another set of 6,000 students for the upcoming school year. They will return next year for another conference, which will be followed by six more months of online courses and meetings.

Eighty students were at the RI-ITEST conference to try out the interactive features of the software. Along with two-dimensional models that illustrate chemical, physical and biological processes, the program can collect student responses, and students can answer multiple choice and essay questions, as well as make reports with accompanying images, Magyar said.

Teachers can also grade all of the activities in the program while students obtain a better understanding of what it is they are learning and develop the ability to probe the background components of particular concepts or lessons, thanks to the technologically enhanced visuals.

Initially, the computer models were meant to provide a link to Physics First programs, which teach a more conceptual and hands-on physics class in the 9th grade in contrast to schools providing a standard science education, where physics is taught in the 11th grade. (High schools that offer the Physics First program require biology to be taken in the 11th grade and chemistry to be taken in the 10th grade; schools providing a standard science education require freshman biology and sophomore chemistry.)

But Magyar noted that the participating high schools without Physics First curriculums helped determine how well the Concord learning materials work in diverse educational settings. He also cited other attributes for schools that participate in the program, including the E2T2 program, which provides technology funds through the Rhode Island Department of Education to purchase computers and equipment for the schools that don’t have them.

As an added benefit, students attending the conference were able to learn about the wide range of career opportunities awaiting them in the sciences while enjoying being on a college campus.

“There were many students who hadn’t really considered going to college before and they were intrigued to be up here in a college classroom on campus and having lunch in the dining hall,” Magyar said. “Some kids began changing [their minds about] what they wanted to do when they grew up.”

Glênisson de Oliveira
Another RI-ITEST conference was held July 13-16 for returning teachers who were unable to attend the prior one. Many were enthusiastic about the opportunity to incorporate the program into their lessons, and to stimulate a more interactive instructor/learner dynamic in the classroom.

RIC, which worked on the RI-ITEST initiative in partnership with the Concord Consortium, East Bay Educational Collaborative, Rhode Island Department of Education, Sun Associates and Ergopedia, was described by Magyar as “a wonderful place for [hosting] these courses” because of the accessibility to technology provided by the school computer labs and the on-campus STEM Center.

Developed several years ago with capital state and private foundation funds, the STEM Center is a $2.9 million statewide initiative to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics learning in Rhode Island public high schools. It is housed on the second floor of the Henry Barnard School.

“Here, we use technology very extensively to help people change the way they think, and to change how science is presented in the classroom,” said Glênisson de Oliveira, director of the STEM Center and RIC professor of chemistry. The classrooms are equipped with integrated systems for sound, lighting, and the use of other accessories to stimulate applied thinking and learning.

Large-screened Smart Boards allow teachers and students alike to access information rapidly and to annotate right on screen, while a tablet PC provides a more personalized mode of interaction.

“Much of what we use technology for is for the ability to collaborate, using collaborative tools where people can share ideas in a creative and fluid manner,” de Oliveira said.

Classrooms are models for inquiry-based learning for the K-12 population in the state and beyond, de Oliveira explained. “We are helping them get excited about science, math, technology, and engineering and to be better prepared as citizens in a much more sophisticated world.”

De Oliveira is also the principal investigator for the Rhode Island Computational Chemistry Summer Institute, which is currently underway on campus, and for the upcoming Rhode Island Technology Enhanced Science Program to be held starting August 2.

Students in the Computational Chemistry Summer Institute are conducting summer lab research and will to attend a national conference to present their findings. Participating teachers are trained through a computational chemistry graduate course during the fall.

In conjunction with the University of Rhode Island, RIC will train over 100 teachers during the Technology Enhanced Science Program. The program is funded by a $12.5 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation, and involves providing “flexible models and tools, including database graphics to help kids see how scientists work with data,” said de Oliveira.