Not by the Book

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A lack of equipment is one of several difficulties that the Laredo district has encountered in making the switch to multimedia core texts.

But the greatest limitation on the use of multimedia is that many schools don't have the infrastructure to support it, McClintock says. "Learning materials are something that all children need to have dependable access to," he says.

Indeed, a lack of equipment is one of several difficulties that the Laredo district has encountered in making the switch to multimedia core texts.

When the district adopted Science 2000 in 1994, it provided one computer, a television, a laserdisc player, and a link between the television and the laserdisc player for every 7th and 8th grade science classroom. The cost was roughly equal to what the district would have paid for new science textbooks for all 7th and 8th graders.

The district asked schools to start implementing the program in the 1995-96 school year.

With one computer per classroom, "you can start--you can make it go," says Rodriguez, who taught with the program for two years and now spends a third of her time as a district support specialist for it.

Some educators in the district disagree. Delores W. Barrera, the principal at Clark Middle School, says her teachers are struggling with Science 2000 even with seven computers per classroom.

"We can't wait until we can adopt another program," Barrera says. "We don't have the proper tools to run [Science 2000] correctly."

The idea behind Science 2000 is to teach students about science while engaging them in "investigations." "Science 2000 offers students the opportunity to learn science concepts in the ways that scientists actually apply their trade," says Larry Nelson, the president and chief executive officer of Decision Development Corp., the San Ramon, Calif., company that made the product.

For example, 7th graders learn about bacteria and viruses while following a story line about how a particular virus caused a disease among a tribe in Papua New Guinea.

At Clark Middle School, teacher Angela G. Abdallah has her students gather around computers in groups and take turns reading aloud information from the screen about the differences between viruses and bacteria. Every paragraph or so, the students stop reading and Abdallah shows them a video on a laserdisc player. When the students get to the words "bacterial cells," for instance, Abdallah shows a clip of the three kinds of living bacteria, magnified under a microscope.

The lesson ends in a traditional way, with children writing down vocabulary words and definitions for further study.

In 8th grade teacher Jessica Fulgham's class at United South Middle School, students work with construction paper, magazine photos, crayons, and scissors to make posters categorizing creatures of the earth according to whether they dwell primarily on land, in the water, or in the air. To introduce the activity, Fulgham shows the students video clips of various animals from the Science 2000 laserdisc.

Marcos adds that the one computer in her classroom has been down for two weeks, and that she'd be "spinning her wheels" if she were teaching with Science 2000.

"Through the use of this technology, we're able to provide greater exposure to the world," says Davila-Medrano, the assistant superintendent. "We're not dealing with a population whose family takes them on ski vacations or to fancy restaurants. Many of our students don't even go to other areas of the city."

Abdallah and Fulgham both say they've spent hours scrounging up background material and planning lab activities to fill out the lessons offered by the multimedia program.

"If you're a true science person, you know this cannot be your bible," Abdallah says.

But she praises Science 2000 for urging students to use the scientific method. And Fulgham says the program encourages students to work cooperatively.

"I definitely like it better than a textbook," Fulgham says.

A recent visit to three classes actively using Science 2000 here found that every student interviewed was excited about the program.

"It has all the information we need. We click a few times and we get what we need," 7th grader Robby Rangel says. "With a book, we wouldn't get as much--the movies, the pictures. This is much more up-to-date."

Learning science with Science 2000 is "better than a textbook," adds Veronica Jaime, an 8th grader in Fulgham's class. "It's interesting. It gives you more information. The textbook doesn't give you a lot of information."

Most of the students use one word to describe Science 2000: "cool."

But students using Science 2000 aren't the only ones here who use that word to describe science. "We do a lot of cool stuff," says Ricky Carrillo, an 8th grader in Diana Marcos' science class at George Washington Middle School. "In 6th and 7th [grades], we just did chapters of books. Here we do activities."

Marcos and her colleague Guillermo Pro so far have resisted using Science 2000. Marcos hasn't used it at all, and Pro tried one unit for 2« weeks and then abandoned it. They rely instead on a mix of other materials such as slide shows, clay modeling materials, popsicle sticks, straws, and photocopied units of science textbooks that have been approved by the state.

They fault Science 2000 as being too advanced for their students, lacking background information, and using activities that aren't engaging. Their resistance isn't about a phobia toward technology, Marcos and Pro say, noting that they both are computer literate. Neither is it about a desire to go back to a traditional printed textbook.

This year the district is stepping up to efforts to make sure Science 2000 is used.

Science 2000 is "a good program if you're an extremely bright 8th grader with a 10th grade reading level," Marcos says. "There's a terrible lack of science in general in our community and low reading levels. ... How can I teach genetics if they don't know what a cell is?"

Marcos adds that the one computer in her classroom has been down for two weeks, and that she'd be "spinning her wheels" if she were teaching with Science 2000.

Pro feels the program is too passive for his students. "They need to touch things and put them together," he says.

Both say they intend to teach at least one unit of Science 2000 this year because of pressure from their administrators, but they're looking for jobs elsewhere, to be able to teach the way they would like.

Persuading teachers to use Science 2000 has been a slow process throughout the Laredo district. Four years after the district officially adopted Science 2000, only two of the seven middle schools are really going full-strength with the program. Overall, a third of the 7th and 8th grade science teachers are using it fully, estimates Rodriguez, the district support specialist.

"The principals haven't enforced it," she says.

This year, however, the district is stepping up efforts to make sure Science 2000 is used. Davila-Medrano sent out a memo to principals clarifying what equipment is needed to run the program and asking them to report if teachers didn't have what they needed, thus eliminating opportunities for excuses.

"If for some reason this is not being used, they are responsible," she says.

Rodriguez believes the district's new resolve is warranted because 8th grade science scores on standardized state tests for the two schools that have used Science 2000 consistently--Clark and Trautmann middle schools--are higher than at the other middle schools and have improved significantly between 1996 and 1998. (She plays down the fact that science scores also increased at four of the five other middle schools over the same period.)

Davila-Medrano is less willing to draw conclusions about the scores, but she adds that requiring Science 2000 isn't about test scores anyway.

"It's about providing quality instruction in the classroom," she says. "We feel this is a very good program."

Vol. 18, Issue 14, Pages 30-34

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Not by the Book
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