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K-12 kids become practicing AMSTI scientists

Since 2002, the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) has worked to improve math and science teaching throughout the state, most recently by piloting the new SPARK Science Learning System.

AMSTI provides more than 600 K-12 Alabama schools with math, science, and technology services, including professional development, equipment, and on-site support, said AMSTI Director Steve Ricks.

Ricks said AMSTI uses technology and group learning environments to improve not only student performance in math and science, but also to boost their interest.

"In far too many schools, math and science are taught the way they were 20 years ago.  Too often they’re not preparing students for the jobs of today," he said.

The program operates on the belief that students learn math and science best by doing math and science, especially when they are able to relate it to their daily lives, according to the AMSTI web site. 

Schools apply to become official AMSTI Schools and, when accepted, agree to send all of their math and science teachers, and administrators, to two-week summer training sessions for two consecutive years.  

Science teachers receive 120 contact hours of subject- and grade-specific professional development during the program’s summer training sessions.

For example, a seventh grade science teacher is grouped with other seventh grade science teachers and will learn specifically what needs to be taught and how to teach it to help students master seventh grade content standards, Ricks said.

The SPARK Science Learning System, a product of PASCO scientific, is AMSTI’s latest method of using technology to improve student learning and increase interest.  SPARK is an all-in-one, mobile discovery-learning environment that integrates probeware with inquiry-based content and assessments.

Jennifer Cox, a science teacher at Stanhope Elmore High School in Millbrook, Al., said she is working to integrate SPARK into established AMSTI labs.

"We will be testing the SPARK with our students next fall, and we will be training teachers to use the SPARK during our two-week summer in-service for AMSTI in June," she said.

"The labs can be very interactive with this technology, and [they] allow the students to do inquiry-based experiments, where the student decides how to conduct the lab or [is] guided with photos and [on-screen] lab procedures."

And teachers who feel that they might need additional help with the AMSTI program after completing their summer training don’t have to worry–an AMSTI specialist is placed in the schools to provide on-site support for those who may need it.

"We know that even when teachers learn these things in the summer, it’s sometimes hard for them to implement in the classrooms," Ricks said.

Cox agreed.

"I can not imagine teaching chemistry without the support, training, and equipment that my chemistry specialist, Paul Norgaard, is able to provide," she said.

The program’s web site claims that students in AMSTI schools have outscored those in non-AMSTI schools on every state standardized test.

"I think students need to be using the cutting edge technology that’s out there," Ricks said, adding that before the SPARK, AMSTI students were regularly using technology such as mass spectrophotometers, nuclear scalars, and DNA replicators.

"The students are functioning as actual scientists and mathematicians," he said.



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