University Relations and Marketing

October 31, 2012

MSUB College of Education at forefront of new way to teach science

$1 million grant will further develop peer-to-peer network of classroom teachers in Montana

Contacts:
Dr. Ken Miller, College of Education, Department Chair, 657-2034
Jeanie Kalotay, College of Education, MPRES coordinator, 657-2317
Dan Carter, University Relations, 657-2269

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By Dan Carter
MSU Billings News Services

There’s a revolution taking place in the way science and technology are being taught in schools, and Montana State University Billings is at the forefront the change.

Ken Miller and Jeanie KalotayThanks to continuing work by Dr. Ken Miller, director of Educational Programs at the MSU Billings College of Education, a new partnership with Montana Tech and a $1 million grant, classroom teachers across Montana are getting training, support and tools to excite young minds in areas of science, technology, engineering and math. MSU Billings’ tradition of excellent teacher education and use of best practices positions the university to push science education to new heights.

“This is an evolutionary process,” said Miller, who has been spearheading regional efforts to boost inquiry-based science education in elementary schools. “We’ve been moving forward science education for decades and now have the foundation for the next big step. It’s a new way that science should be taught.”

The new effort is funded by a National Science Foundation /Science Partnership grant of $335,178 per year for three years and will be implemented through the Montana Partnership with Regions for Excellence in STEM (MPRES). STEM is the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math, key areas of education that will position the state and nation to compete in a global economy.  

The key players in MPRES are MSU Billings’ Miller and Rayelynn Connole at Montana Tech in Butte.  It is one of two grants from the Office of Public  Instruction this fall to boost math and science education. The other was awarded to the Montana Common Core Standards for Mathematics project in Bozeman.

Working with Miller is Jeanie Kalotay, who is the MPRES grant coordinator. Kalotay said the MPRES project is designed to build upon two previous successful Math Science Partnership grant projects to improve K-12 science student achievement and teacher instruction. The project will develop teacher trainers who will work across the state through face-to-face and online trainings.

“This is about getting to the next generation of science students,” Kalotay said.

Twelve teachers who have previously participated in math/science partnerships projects will be recruited as trainers and will complete a yearlong program of professional development starting this fall, Kalotay said. During the second year, the 12 trainers will each recruit five teachers to receive professional development with four of these teachers becoming trainers for their region, additional teachers will be trained in year three.

Ultimately, Miller and Kalotay said, 152 teachers will be provided with high-quality professional development in science education. Other partners in this project are Montana Education Consortium, Alliance for Curriculum Enhancement, Billings Public Schools, Butte School District and the five Montana Regional Education Service Areas.

The peer-to-peer element is nothing new for Miller.  A few years ago he was awarded more than $600,000 to help boost inquiry-based science education for grade school and middle teachers across Montana. That effort led to the new MPRES plan that would allow the enthusiasm to grow organically from one classroom teacher to the next.

“We’re changing the way science is taught,” Miller said. “We think we have a model that could be a national model. It’s revolutionary.”

The overall effort is national in scope. Improved education for science, technology, engineering and math fields is viewed by many to be a national security issue. Without well-trained professionals in all those fields, America runs the risk at being left behind in technological and scientific advances.

For Miller, the key is getting kids excited about science at an early age. And the person who can unlock that excitement is a classroom teacher.

“While many of our science teachers in Montana are doing an excellent job teaching science, many need instructional strategies to help their students be critical thinkers and problem-solvers,” Miller said. “The purpose of this grant is to build on the good things our science teachers are already doing.”

To get there, he said, classroom teachers need to let a student’s innate curiosity flourish so they can absorb small discoveries. Old methods of fact recitation no longer get the job done, he said.

Through Miller’s previous work promoting a “guided inquiry” process, teachers in grades 3-6 have learned how to build science curriculum to channel the inquisitiveness every child carries with them. Teachers guide students through questions and answers as they do science, instead of reading about it.

For example, students can look at water running through a small stream or ditch. Instead of being told by their teacher that it carries a certain volume of water from one point to another, the teacher can pose a question such as “I wonder if that stream has enough water for a small town?”

Naturally, it all depends on how deep the stream is, how fast the water is moving, and how much water is needed for a small population. But until that teacher uses his/her own inquisitiveness, the students don’t get an opportunity to use theirs.

Montana Tech’s Connole said through this statewide partnership, more teachers can be reached. But equally important, she said, resources through the Montana University System are being tapped to address an important need.

“We have to maximize the resources in the state for this kind of thing,” she said, noting the science/technology/engineering faculty at Tech helped write training modules for the project. “The next generation of science standards turn things on its head and all of us have to work together to make a difference instead of in pieces and parts.”

Miller also noted that this endeavor will benefit college students as well, especially those in the MSU Billings College of Education who are learning the best practices for teaching science and math.

“It’s going to be amazing to see what will happen to our kids,” he said. “There will be a need for more scientific decision-making. They will need to be able to discern and understand data like never before.

“This goes to the very way science should be taught,” he continued. “It’s focused not just on what, but how it should be taught.”

For more information on the MPRES grant and project, contact Kalotay at 657-2317 or by email at jkalotay@msubillings.edu.

PHOTO ABOVE: Ken Miller, director of Educational Programs in the College of Education at MSU Billings, left, and Jeanie Kalotay, grant coordinator, will be working with elementary classroom teachers in Montana on new ways to teach science. The project, Montana Partnership with Regions for Excellence in STEM, is funded by a $1 million grant.


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