Before Wrhen took on the challenge of change, activity-based learning in science wasn't an option for primary teachers because there simply weren't materials available to them. "Once in a while you might come across an activity that was neat, but it was a one-shot deal, "recalls Pat Ralph, a kindergarten teacher at Hasson Heights School. "You had to buy the materials yourself or you just didn't do it." But this problem was due as much to a lack of incentive to teach science as to a lack of materials. Because of the usual pressure to develop reading and math skills in the primary grades, science often fell by the wayside. And in the upper grades, teachers had access to some materials kits, but they hadn't been updated in years, according to Wrhen.Getting Recharging
The district-wide reform Wrhen helped introduce began when she took a sabbatical leave in 1986. After 15 years of teaching, she felt burned-out. "I needed something different and interesting to do," she remembers. So she returned to graduate school to earn a master's degree, her second in science education at Clarion University. "I was sick of teaching things the same old way. I thought this was something I could do to enhance my teaching." While studying, Wrhen worked as a graduate assistant in the Pennsylvania Science Teacher Education Program (PA STEP),which aims to improve elementary science education in the state. Here she was introduced to approaches to teaching science that emphasized experiential learning. She traveled around western Pennsylvania conducting in-service programs in these methods. After completing the program, Wrhen felt recharged and eager to practice these new strategies in her own classroom. But she also wanted to share the benefit of her experiences with her colleagues. So Wrhen teamed up with two other teachers in her district who were also pursuing master's degrees in science education and who shared her philosophy about teaching scienceVickie Harry, a teacher of the gifted at Hasson Heights School, and Sue Highfield, a sixth-grade science teacher at Oil city Middle Schooland proposed doing an in-service for teachers that fall. The in-service was a full-day program of hands-on science activities, including lesson plans and materials.Overhauling A Curriculum
Response to the in-service program was good, but the three teachers didn't feel that one in-service would translate into significant change in the way science was taught. So they applied for and received state funding to revise the K-6 science curriculum. That summer, they overhauled the existing curriculum. The revitalized curriculum replaced "skim-the-surface" kinds of activities with more substantive activities "that teach kids how to be investigators and how to set up and conduct experiments," Wrhen says.
They also submitted a request to their superintendent for the purchase of $15,000 worth of primary science kits, which was approved. Once the curriculum guides and kits were in teachers'hands, the team followed up with another in- service to help them get started using the new materials. During this in- service, teachers learned how to integrate disciplines and use science activities as a springboard for reading and math activities.A New Kind Of Science
Wrhen says that while change has been significant, it has not occurred overnight. "You don't win everyone over in the first year," she points out, adding that reform has been more evolutionary than revolutionary. "Some teachers are apprehensive about science lessons that can be a lot noisier, messier, and less structured than simply reading from a text. You have to let kids explore and ask questions you may not know the answers to. It's just such a differently of organizing a classroom. I realize that there are some teachers who may never change."
But Wrhen's optimism has kept her from becoming discouraged during the reform process. "I have very positive outlook on life, and I just don't take no for an answer."
Her persistence has paid off. Wrhen says that more and more teachers are coming around. And she's noticed a definite improvement in students'attitudes toward science. "It's become their favorite subject in many classes."
Fortunately, school and district administrators support her reform initiatives. "They let us take a leadership role, which I don't think is the case in every district."
In fact Wrhen says, the greatest challenge in implementing change has been overcoming internal, rather than external hurdles. During the reform process, she, Highfield, and Harry have been plagued by self-doubt. While all three had successfully conducted in-service programs and workshops in other districts, they were hesitant about preaching the doctrine of change to their own colleagues. But working as a team has had real advantages, she adds. The three teachers serve as a support network for one another. "When you invest so much of yourself in the programs, you really open yourself up for criticism. It helps to have good friends in it with you."The Personal Effects
Wrhen says that this experience has changed her whole outlook on teaching. "I think I'm a much better teacher in every way in every subject than I used to be, because I'm not afraid to try new things." It has also bolstered her self-esteem. "Seven years ago, I never would have thought I'd ever have the nerve to do what I've done. It's given me so much confidence," she says. This self-assurance, in turn, has opened new doors for her professionally. Wrhen joined and become actively involved in the National Science Teachers Association and the Pennsylvania Science Teachers Association. She even ran for a position on the national board and won. "It was totally amazing," she says. "Here I was this little third-grade teacher from the hills of northwestern Pennsylvania, about to be on the board of NSTA."
During her term, she traveled around the country making presentations and conducting workshops for elementary teachers about initiating change in their own classrooms.
Wrhen would be the first to tell you that implementing change can be an energy- and time-consuming process. Sometimes, she says, she feels stretched to the limit. "It really is a challenge to keep the balance between my family, my classroom, and the professional organizations. I just want to do everything. There are times when I feel like I'm pulled a million ways."
She adds, however, that the effort and exhaustion are worthwhile. "Improving science education has become a kind of crusade for me because it's so important for kids. It really teaches them how to think."
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