Researchers team up with teachers on web-based system for math, science instruction
A doctor records his patients' symptoms on a tiny laptop computer, receiving instant, expert feedback for his diagnosis. A police officer gets a suspect's rap sheet in minutes, thanks to the cruiser-installed computer connecting her to critical public safety data. Even the cashier at the fast-food joint uses a high-tech system to process your order of burger and fries.
Yet the work of most teachers looks much the same as it did decades ago. Can technology transform teaching in the same way it has other key professions?
It can — and will, thanks to a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to Florida State University's Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (FCR-STEM). The grant will fund the creation of an electronic performance support system that will save teachers considerable time, money and duplication of effort. Dubbed ICPALMS, it will feature a powerful portal linking teachers across the nation to online tools for planning and implementing instruction. Based on adopted standards governing what students must learn, these tools will, in turn, connect educators with thousands of existing resources for teaching math and science, making this an innovative system like no other.
The three-year project will pool the expertise and resources of several groups. First are researchers at the Learning Systems Institute, home of FCR-STEM and the Partnerships Advancing Library Media (PALM) Center, whose researchers have decades of experience in technologies designed to improve learning and performance. Second is the NSF's National Science Digital Library (NSDL), an online repository of free resources for science, technology, engineering, and math education and research. Lastly, but by no means an afterthought, are state educators who will help design and test-drive the new system. Teachers, school librarians and principals from the Brevard, Duval and Seminole County school districts and the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium are critical partners in the project.
Statewide and nationally, teaching standards have changed — and will continue to change. This has required teachers to alter how they do business, but without providing much support. ICPALMS is designed to meet teachers' needs as standards and classrooms evolve. Having educators on board from the ground up will be key to the project's success, said Laura Lang, principal investigator on the grant and a former teacher and principal.
"This is not a top-down approach," said Lang, director of the Learning Systems Institute and an associate professor in Florida State's Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. "We've been inspired by our work with teachers and principals over the years. This whole project is designed around their expressed needs."
How will the system work? Say you're a sixth-grade science teacher from Jacksonville charting out the year based on benchmarks and standards spelled out by the state. Using the portal, you plan your curriculum, scheduling instruction and assessment in a few clicks, pulling in relevant resources along the way. Mid-November comes along, when you're scheduled to teach students a specific scientific benchmark on ways to differentiate among radiation, conduction and convection. Now the portal conveniently recommends recently added resources — news feeds, videos, activities and more — aligned specifically to that benchmark and reviewed for quality and relevance by math and science specialists and educators.
ICPALMS is also designed to end the isolation many teachers have long worked in by building online peer communities that encourage collaboration. Teachers not only provide feedback on the resources they use but can also submit resources they themselves develop, making ICPALMS an ever-growing system that evolves with the times.
Marcia Mardis, a co-principal investigator on ICPALMS and an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Studies, has worked on numerous NSDL-related grants since the library's inception a decade ago.
"It's exciting to see NSDL support this new direction," said Mardis, associate director of the PALM Center. "They are sending the signal with this project that they understand how teachers work and want to support that."
Now under construction, the portal is scheduled to debut next fall. A cadre of teachers will be trained to use the portal, and to pass that training along to their peers. Because the portal will use a widget-based platform, similar to the popular iGoogle, users will be able to customize the layout, design and content.
Kathryn LeRoy, chief academic officer with Duval County Public Schools, said she is eager to get started. ICPALMS will allow her district's teachers to hone their curricula like never before — in no small part because they will help shape the tool.
"They're at the forefront, they're in the classrooms," LeRoy said. "They know specifically what their needs are."
The current grant focuses on Florida teachers during the initial development. But developers foresee expanding ICPALMS into a system that can be used, and customized, by teachers across the country. For the current grant, resources will be aligned not only with Florida teaching standards, but also with the Common Core State Standards already adopted by most states, including Florida. Standards for the 21st-Century Learner, used by school librarians, will also be integrated into the system.
In addition to Lang and Mardis, other FSU faculty and staff on the ICPALMS grant are Rabieh Razzouk, associate director of the Learning Systems Institute and co-principal investigator on the grant; Nancy Everhart, associate professor at the School of Library and Information Studies, co-investigator; and Danielle Sherdan, Learning Systems Institute science specialist, co-investigator and project manager.
"We've been inspired by our work with teachers and principals over the years. This whole project is designed around their expressed needs."
Director, Learning Systems Institute