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SMCISD/Flowing Waters partnership boosts science TAKS scores

By T.C. Sprencel
University News Service
September 8, 2010

Since the 2008 inception of Project Flowing Waters' GK-12 program, a partnership between Texas State University-San Marcos and San Marcos CISD, middle school students have posted significant increases in science scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test, according to official numbers released by the Texas Education Agency.

“The real and enduring success of Project Flowing Waters in the secondary classrooms is that more San Marcos CISD students are becoming interested in science and considering going to college, a reflection of relationships developed over a year between students, teachers and their ‘resident scientists’ (Texas State Ph.D. students),” said Project Flowing Waters principal investigator Julie Westerlund. “This is important for both Texas State and the San Marcos community.”

Sandra Baker, an eighth grade science teacher at Owen Goodnight Middle School, said, “All of the (Project Flowing Waters) resident scientist-enhanced labs have been TEKS-based, and this provides a great opportunity for our students to be successful."

Westerlund, along with Texas State biology professors Tim Bonner and Weston Nowlin, and geography professor Rich Earl, were awarded $2.3 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a “Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12)” five year program in 2008. The Texas Pioneer Foundation, a local San Marcos educational foundation, provided additional support for graduate students and teachers for Project Flowing Waters for the first three years of the program.

Project Flowing Waters provides substantial funding for 10 graduate students from the aquatic resources and environmental geography doctoral programs and funding for their partnered SMCISD science teachers at Doris Miller Middle School, Owen Goodnight Middle School, and San Marcos High School. The Ph.D. students--officially titled “NSF GK-12 Fellows”--implement lessons and activities, simultaneously conducting scientific research and getting students excited about participating in science classes. To the San Marcos CISD students, they are “resident scientists” in their classrooms. The enthusiasm of those involved, in addition to test scores, is proof that Project Flowing Waters is a success.

“Our lessons really drive home that there is so much about science we don’t know yet,” said Jeff Troy, aquatic resources doctoral student and resident scientist in seventh grade science at Owen Goodnight Middle School. “That’s the fun stuff. It’s what gets the kids excited.”

That excitement is directly proportional to the amount of hands-on activities in which the secondary school students get to participate. The NSF GK-12 Fellows are tasked with organizing both short and long-term lesson plans and conducting various lab experiments and field trips, and while the students are quite literally learning how to identify fish, their science lessons extend beyond the aquatic realm. The interactive exercises--which have included “alien genetics” lessons, field trips to local cave environments and analyses of veritably frightening animals, just to name a few--are designed to get students actively engaged in scientific procedures. And the dirtier, the better, according to the teachers.

“Messy, smelly and fiery are all bonuses,” jokes Isabel Gomez, eighth grade science teacher at Miller Middle School. “The students love the hands-on stuff.”

While the students are excited about their fun-filled science lessons, their teachers, along with the NSF GK-12 Fellows, professors and administrators at both Texas State and San Marcos CISD, are equally elated with the results of Project Flowing Waters. In less than two years the program has noticeably strengthened the ties between Texas State and San Marcos CISD, as well as those between the San Marcos CISD campuses. The teachers couldn’t be happier.

“The San Marcos CISD teachers are enthusiastic and having a lot of fun with this,” Bonner said. “They are really excited about the program and its potential.”

“It’s not just affecting secondary teachers and staff,” said Pam Guettner, director of curriculum and instruction for San Marcos CISD. “It’s affecting the whole district.”

Guettner, who praises Project Flowing Waters for boosting student curiosity and promoting collaboration between San Marcos CISD staff, points to the significance of introducing secondary school students to the ideals and goals of higher education.

“The relationship between our staff and the university’s staff provides a continuum between public education and higher education,” Guettner said, noting an important symbiotic relationship that has familiarized San Marcos CISD staff with college science requirements and concomitantly provided teaching experience for the Ph.D. fellows. An important result of this collaboration is more San Marcos public school students taking interest in higher education. “Relationships that our students have with college students provide socialization that gets them thinking about college.”

San Marcos middle and high school students aren’t the only ones thinking about the future. Grant money will enable Project Flowing Waters to continue through 2013--enough time, in Guettner’s estimation, to further cultivate educational resources and collaborative efforts.

“This program has allowed our campuses to work on projects together. The next step is to build district resources,” said Guettner, indicating that the partnership will bring continued improvement and achievement for all parties.

Curiosity and learning, the very hallmarks of scientific study, have been crucial to the success of Project Flowing Waters. Westerlund and Guettner are hoping that Project Flowing Waters will serve as an example of success for such collaborative learning experiences. Those who have made this science project work--the faculty, administrators, fellows and even the grant-providing foundations--are learning just as much as the young students.

“We hope that by having San Marcos CISD students together with Texas State science graduate students every week, more students will decide to seek higher education, and more may seek science careers,” Westerlund said.

For additional information on Project Flowing Waters, visit www.bio.txstate.edu/~pfw or contact Westerlund at jw33@txstate.edu or Joseph Tomasso at jt33@txstate.edu.