Eighth NSF Grant Aims For Better Science Education

As Sam Houston State University’s eighth National Science Foundation grant recipient, Beverly Irby is shooting to help solve some of the nation’s most pressing educational issues: teaching science, especially to students who are at risk due to limited English proficiency or limited family income.

Irby, chair of the educational leadership and counseling department, is also the College of Education’s first NSF grant recipient.

The $1.5 million collaborative grant, given through the NSF’s subsidiary group Discovery Research K-12, will fund research for “Project MSSELL” (pronounced “missile”), a series of educational curriculum enhancements targeting fifth and sixth grade science students in Houston’s Aldine school district.

It will be disseminated between Irby at SHSU and the Texas A&M University principal investigator Rafael Lara-Alecio and the school district for support personnel.

Through Project MSSELL, Irby and Alecio will conduct a two-year, longitudinal study of Aldine students in four groups of 100.

Two groups—English-language learners and English-speaking learners, both randomly assigned—will receive an enhanced curriculum infused with English as a second language strategies. These include oral and written vocabulary development, hands-on activities, technology integration, and take-home activities for family involvement, as well as clarifications of scientific terminology for English-language learners, or non-native English-speaking students.

A “really exciting” component of the project also includes a mentoring program with SHSU experts and students, who will be able to correspond with middle school students via e-mail and will bring them to the SHSU campus for four “Science Saturdays at Sam,” Irby said.

These “Science Saturdays” will apply science by bringing the “experimental group” students into the laboratories at SHSU to learn about chemistry, earth science, biology and astronomy. Faculty mentors for the program include Joan Hudson, biology; Thomas Chasteen, chemistry; Brian Cooper, geology; and Renee James, physics.

“These children will get to see a university campus; it’ll be an early recruitment,” Irby said. “Many universities begin, in the area of science in particular, recruiting at fifth and sixth grade levels. I know A&M has a fifth grade science program, where they are actually recruiting students to come into their area of science.

“We’re really excited about that and having them on campus,” she said.

Other components include “very structured lessons” and training for teachers, as well as paraprofessionals who will tutor the “lowest functioning children within our groups” 15 minutes before and after school, according to Irby.

Because there is a call for more math and science education in America due to recent reports that the country has fallen behind in both areas, Project MSSELL, if successful, could have a great impact on both policy and curriculum, Irby said.

“Scientific literacy, which is where we’re behind, hinges on basic literacy, which relies on a person’s ability to read and comprehend in English and to write and communicate that scientific literacy in meaningful way,” Irby said. “Not only for a person to become a scientist, but just to become a consumer of knowledge that is out there; to be able to understand the concept of what it’s talking about when fertilizing a garden or mixing household chemicals; basically, just using science in everyday living.

“In other words, to be able to become an informed consumer,” she said.

In 2006, the last data available, the Texas Education Agency reported that there were more than 731,000 students who were served in English-language learning programs for the 2006-07 year.

“That’s 16 percent of the population, and 90 percent of those are Spanish speakers,” Irby said. “The reason it’s important for English-language learners, and that’s part of it in having basic science literacy, is because we have a huge number of English-language learners.”

Another reason it’s important to find the best way of training educators to teach is because at this point, there are no data, particularly with an experimental design study, at how to best assist English-language learners even in acquiring academic language in science.

“We don’t have the research that we need,” Irby said. “If they’re teaching in science, teachers have to teach science literacy, but they also have to teach science content, so teachers need training and assistance as well, which is part of the grant.”

Likewise, the TEA reported that almost 90 percent of those English-language learners are economically disadvantaged, a problem that affects the learning abilities of students from all backgrounds.

“Children who live below the poverty line don’t do as well in science and math, and that’s a problem,” Irby said. “According to the National Science Board (2008), third grade children who live above the poverty threshold scored much better in science than those who live below it, and by the fifth grade, the gap had widened.”

If successful, Project MSSELL can transcend the target groups to enhance science education for all students, as ESL strategies are universal, Irby said.

“English as a second language strategies are really good for any child and any learner. They’re good strategies, like with gifted education strategies; they’re good for all children actually,” she said.

“There will be one group within the English-language learners that is a newcomer group, and they will get clarifications in Spanish,” she said. “That will be the only difference in the experimental groups’ curriculum, and it will be targeted; there will be specific clarifications by the bilingual teacher aide that we put in the classrooms.”

The project is currently in its “gearing up” phase in preparation for the pilot, which will begin next fall.

As SHSU’s first NSF grant recipient from the College of Education, Irby said her background in science as a teacher, professor and student (her undergraduate minor was in science), she hopes to utilize her interest and make a difference.

“I’ve always been particularly interested in that, so it is something I feel comfortable with,” she said. “There is a segment of our population that needs assistance in our schools, and I hope that I can continue to help teachers and administrators to serve them better.

“I feel good that I can hopefully be a role model and help to others who come behind me.”


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SHSU Media Contacts: Jennifer Gauntt
Oct. 21, 2008
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