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A Roadmap for Participation in Partnerships

Where Should I Start?

Summary of a presentation by Jan Tuomi and subsequent small-group discussions at the working conference "Scientists and Engineers and Science In the Schools".

Where to begin is a dilemma to scientists and engineers contemplating some kind of volunteer involvement with schools. I have sought a pattern in the experiences told me by the hundreds of scientists and engineers with whom I have interacted over the last several years. By pasting together the lessons learned from both successes and failures and correcting for personality quirks, a basic roadmap useful to others has emerged.

Depending on your background and experience with K-12 education or teachers, you will need to make a modest start so that you can learn more about today's schools, classes, teachers and students. Committing yourself to a one-shot appearance is a logical strategy to get to know what you might be getting into. Most people start with giving a talk or judging a science fair. Organizations often start by giving small discretionary grants to teachers or hosting one-time events. These are excellent starting points--fulfilling to many participants and meaningful to individual students or teachers, but unfortunately have little effect on the overall quality of science education.

Even as a novice, you may be tempted to make a more long-term commitment. If you are considering joining an ongoing program that requires a long-term commitment, you should also be able to get detailed information on expectations, receive assistance in finding a good match, and be eligible for some level of on-going coaching. You can benefit from their previous experience. To be sure, if they don't require an interview, you should interview them.

Do not fall prey to the "quick fix" syndrome. The education system has many interactive subsystems, and is notoriously resistant to change. If you think you have independently come up with "the answer", you are sure to fail. Instead, try to listen more than you talk, ask questions more than provide opinions. Your best mentors are teachers and principals with excellent reputations among students and their peers. Successful volunteers often began by simply and honestly offering to be of assistance to such a person.

Working Smarter

It doesn't take long before you get hooked on increasing your effort. Primarily, you become aware of how immense the needs are. For every teacher or student whom you have assisted or inspired, you cannot escape thinking about how many others you did not affect. Hopefully, you will also have discovered how you can make a significant contribution. If your information-gathering effort was wide ranging, you may have found a number of resources you would like to explore. There are a variety of ways to power-up your effort without necessarily taking more of your limited time.

If you are an individual, you may now recruit others. You may look for increased resources, such as administrative support for more participation or contributions of money and materials. In fact, small grassroots efforts that have survived and perhaps evolved developed administrative support and diversified their leadership. Talk about your accomplishments and ask others what they think about your plans. The more you talk--and listen, the more likely you are to increase your impact over time.

You may also revise your "target". For instance, many individuals want to spread more widely an innovation that worked well in one classroom. To do so, they graduate from being a partner to one teacher to assisting in introducing the innovation to many teachers through training sessions. You may also come to appreciate the long-term impact of helping teachers become completely confident and competent in new and more effective methods, thereby affecting all their students for a number of years. You may now have evidence that a district or state policy is standing in the way of desirable innovation, and become motivated to enter the administrative and political areas of the education system.

Enduring the Test of Time

By this time, the resistance to change of any education system will have made itself known. Some scientists and engineers have described their work in education as "trying to move a giant marshmallow". But, being born problem solvers, some partnership veterans have distilled advice and encouragement from their experiences. Two facets of their advice have to do with time and leadership.

The time needed to establish change is likely to be a decade or more. Developing the full array of supportive policies and comprehensive programs needed to spark and sustain productive changes in classrooms takes much more time than you might have imagined. In addition, as time passes, you-an outsider-must pass more and more of the responsibility and control you have assumed to local educators. This process of building capacity and sharing leadership, while fundamental to lasting success, is often undermined by the high turn-over rate among school superintendents and other administrators and by the shifting priorities of school boards and state education agencies. Broad and diverse support, along with visible intermediate milestones of progress are important antidotes for eroding support.

Never has a long-standing partnership implemented its objectives exactly as originally planned. Coping with unpredictable shifts in a system in which you have invested much effort but have little or no authority requires patience and creative flexibility. The most often cited inspiration to persevere is personal, positive feedback from teachers and students who have directly benefited from the partnership.

Becoming Part Of The System

"Systemic reform" has become the buzzword for the ultimate goal in improving science education. If the system has been reformed, it is assumed that the schools now go about their business in a completely different (and more effective) manner. The system includes all the participants in education, from the students and teachers to the superintendent, from the accountants who process materials orders to the president of the PTA. See the www.Science Education System Standards for a more detailed overview of the educational system. To have the greatest impact, your effort -- combined with others' -- must be as systemic as circumstance and resources allow. Only then can your effort outlive you, the benefits of a good science education become available to all students in your community, and resources be allocated in the most cost-effective manner.

The hallmarks of an effort that is systemic are: long-term planning, widely-representative participation, and the goal of benefiting each and every classroom. The figure below represents the growth of impact and equity as partnership efforts become more integrated with the greater educational system.

Are We There Yet?

The purpose of describing the pathways open to participants in science education partnerships does not include reaching a common destination. A vision of science literacy for all students will always be somewhere on the horizon, even as progress is achieved. The lessons are in the journey itself. Interestingly, many partnership veterans have the urge to radically shorten the pathway for those who would follow. In the tradition of lecturing, they try to provide a "AP course" in K-12 science education, and prepare their students to jump into systemic reform. However, everyone needs some hands-on experience to build their own understanding of the attributes of the local education system and determine how to make a unique contribution. In doing so, a roadmap of advice on where to begin, what is ahead, and features of the terrain should then be a useful guide.


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