Thinking Like A Scientist

August 01, 1990 5 min read

Among those peers are 25,000 middle grade students at 583 schools in 43 states, all linked together in an ambitious computer telecommunications project known by the research group’s acronym, TERC. With just a few keystrokes, students can share their findings-- about radon or nine other areas of scientific inquiry--thus gaining broader perspectives on the problem.

“If students have the big picture, they can get a lot more out of the curriculum,’' explains Rebecca Fisher, who uses TERC’s software and curriculum at Murray High School in Charlottesville, Va.

That student-centered approach, with its emphasis on analytical skills, is the keystone of the TERC network, one of the four original Star School projects created by Congress in 1987. To qualify for federal matching funds, Star School applicants were required to propose demonstration projects in one of three areas--foreign languages, science, or mathematics--to stimulate interest among specific audiences, primarily disadvantaged students.

Recipients of Star School grants also must form multistate educational partnerships. To that end, TERC has established partnerships with 13 colleges, universities, and museums. Together, they help select schools for the project, distribute the equipment needed to perform the experiments, and provide local expertise to answer technical questions and supplement teaching materials.

Unlike the other Star School projects, TERC is the only one to stress computer modem, rather than satellite video, transmission. The technology costs less than the trendier practice of bouncing lessons off satellites in geosynchronous orbit, and it is also more flexible, giving teachers wide latitude in structuring their lessons and the chance to break free of traditional teaching methods.

“Technology can be a terrific way to engage kids in science and math,’' says Peggy Kapisovsky, a TERC spokeswoman. “But we want kids to discover things. We don’t want them simply to perform some canned experiment.’'

Unlike the answers found in textbooks, student answers almost always emerge freshsqueezed, so teachers have to radically alter their expectations. As Parziale explains: “You can’t say, ‘You’re wrong,’ because the kid might have something. I purposely don’t do that because the higher-level thinking skills we’re looking for would be stopped right there.’'

TERC methodology also encourages an interdisciplinary approach to the sciences and encourages students to apply the scientific method to solving “real world’’ problems.

“Writing across the curriculum,’ ‘hands-on science’, and all of these buzz phrases you hear every day are reinforced by the TERC curriculum,’' says Rebecca Fisher. For example, at Murray High, a small, alternative institution for the at-risk, students may learn the geometry of art by working cooperatively to design a stained-glass window.

The TERC radon unit, too, fits well into the school’s curriculum because the debate over the potentially dangerous gas crosses over several disciplines. “If you read newspaper articles about radon, half of them will look at the scientific aspects and half will look at the social implications,’' Fisher says.

Finally, for many students on the fringes--in remote rural communities and inner-city schools--TERC opens a window on the world.

“What we’ve been able to do is acquaint them with the whole process of telecommunications,’' explains Michael Flootmaker, a 7th grade science teacher at Fremont Middle School in rural Freemont, Mich. “I would say 90 to 95 percent of our students, prior to Star Schools, had no concept of telecommunications.’'

Recently, through a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, TERC has also established links between a handful of U.S. schools, and schools in Leningrad and Moscow. That link has had an effect, says Murray High’s Fisher, demonstrating that at least some of TERC’s benefits are social. “The kids were afraid,’' she recalls. “They had never talked to a Russian before and didn’t know what to expect. One goal that I had was to break through that prejudice.’'

Some breakthroughs, Fisher adds, have come in unexpected ways. Because the Soviet students are translating their communications into English themselves, her students have become very critical of misspellings and grammatical errors. “This has forced them to take a careful look at their own writing,’' she says.

Despite the network’s potential value, some school administrators and teachers have been reluctant to embrace the TERC project. Even among those who use and support TERC, there are a few complaints. To begin with, there have been some technical glitches. Some teachers have had difficulty getting their districts to install computer modems and phone lines. Others have limited access to computers. The TERC software itself is easy to use, others say, but slow.

Apart from such technical difficulties, however, proponents have had to convince often-skeptical school boards of the value of cooperating in the demonstration project. One major stumbling block, says TERC spokeswoman Peggy Kapisovsky, has been that the skills taught “aren’t easily evaluated in traditional ways.’'

But there is evidence that the curriculum has brought some change, if only temporary, in teaching methods. Responses to a recent TERC questionnaire suggest that many teachers are steering clear of multiplechoice tests in favor of classroom presentations, written reports, and other forms of assessment.

Regardless of the good results, at least one teacher supporter is skeptical that TERC will be readily accepted, if only because it is so radically different from what other teachers are used to. “The project has a lot of merit,’' says Rebecca Fisher, “but I think it’s still a long way from being able to work on a regular basis.’'

Most TERC converts, however, seem willing to hang in there. “It’s a lot of work, but I’ve seen it pay off with my students,’' says Fisher. “I’m try- ing to stretch this project as far as it will go.’' Peter West, Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Thinking Like A Scientist