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Success of Chicago’s Novel Sciences Curricula Could be Replicated Elsewhere in US

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By Alex Philippidis

WASHINGTON, DC — Programs crafted by Chicago's public school system to expose more students to the life science and other sciences, as well as technology, engineering, and mathematics, have enabled students to outperform their peers across the rest of Illinois.

These "STEM" programs could also be replicated at least partially nationwide, witnesses agreed at a Congressional hearing Thursday.

Among those taking a close look at the Chicago programs is Rep. Daniel Lipinski, the chairman of a US House of Representatives subcommittee and a Chicago-area congressman who told BioRegion News he and his panel will explore how much of the Chicago programs can help shape the national STEM standards they are considering developing next year when they begin considering reauthorizing the National Science Foundation’s budget.

"With NSF reauthorization coming up next year, one thing I'm looking at is trying to work to see if there's more NSF can do to encourage some of these collaborations in STEM education," said Lipinski, who chairs the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, part of the Committee on Science and Technology. Lipinski's district stretches from part of Chicago west to several suburbs that include Oak Lawn, Ill., and LaGrange, Ill.

"As I work on discussions I have with various stakeholders at NSF about what can be done better at NSF, this would be one area that we're looking at," Lipinski told BRN.

Lipinski and members of his subcommittee spent nearly two hours listening to testimony from, then asking questions of, five professionals who discussed the progress, and continuing challenge, of STEM education in Chicago's public schools.

The five included an NSF official, Wanda Ward, acting assistant director of the foundation's Directorate for Education and Human resources; Chicago First Lady Maggie Daley, chair of After School Matters, a nonprofit group dedicated in part to advancing STEM learning to Chicago high school students, and Michael Lach, officer of teaching and learning for the Chicago Public Schools.

"STEM education and workforce for the 21st century is key to promoting and sustaining an innovative society," Ward said in her testimony.

The more Chicago strengthens its STEM education, the better the schools can satisfy the workforce needs of life-sci and other tech companies, witnesses concurred. One factor fueling that interest: Chicago will be the site of next year's largest annual event for the life-sci industry, the 2010 Biotechnology Industry Organization International Convention, to be held at McCormick Place May 3-6.

Lach told the subcommittee that the number of Chicago public school students that exceeded or met science standards on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test jumped 20 percent between 2001 and 2006 for fourth graders and 13 percent for seventh graders, compared with 13 percent and 6 percent, respectively, for students in the rest of Illinois' schools.

The percentage of Chicago's 400,000 public school students meeting or exceeding science standards on the ISAT jumped from 43 percent in 2001 to 63.3 percent in 2006, then plateaued at 62.6 percent last year.

This jump also helps account for an improvement in total statewide science performance, from 31.9 percent meeting or exceeding state standards in 2002 to 65.7 percent last year, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education.

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“Too often, the children in Chicago are considered 'disadvantaged' because of the many social issues that confront them," Lach testified, noting that 85 percent of Chicago public school students come from low-income families. "Where STEM education is concerned, I believe that growing up in Chicago can and should be considered an advantage. Our students grow up right next door to world-class universities, businesses, museums, and laboratories,” Lach added. “These institutions can and should be considered part of the overall system of mathematics and science improvement."

Lach said public school administrators are hoping for even more science success this fall, when students at Edwin G. Foreman High School begin using a laboratory whose renovation costs were shared between Chicago Public Schools and Abbott, a major life-sci employer in the Chicagoland region.

The lab is an outgrowth of an after-school science program intended to offer Foreman students improved facilities. The school's lab had fallen into disrepair, with no working sinks, electricity, or gas, forcing students in teacher Linda Martin's molecular biology class to learn with pencil and paper, according to Katherine Pickus, Abbott's divisional vice president for global citizenship and policy.

"[The disrepair] just would not do. Students can't draw out science from that. Science is all about the practice, and that's the benefit," Pickus, who is also vice president of the Abbott Fund, Abbott's non-profit philanthropic foundation, said in an interview after the hearing. "We think that will benefit not only the students in the after school program, but students who go there during the day. And the other science teachers will be thrilled to have this resource."

Foreman has been among Chicago's underperforming schools in science. According to the 2007 Illinois School Report Card, just 8.4 percent of Foreman students met or exceeded state science standards in the 2007-08 school year, the latest-available figure, as measured by the Prairie State Achievement Examination, Illinois' standardized test for high school students. While that's up from 6.9 percent in 2006-07, it's down a shade from 8.6 percent in 2005-06.

According to Abbott, the Abbott Fund has awarded $23 million during the last five years in Chicago and across the US, supporting programs designed to advance STEM education at the K-12 and collegiate levels.

Speaking with BRN, Pickus said Abbott worked with Martin to see what her program needed from a lab in order to work, then joined with the school system to develop a plan for refurbishing the lab. The renovated lab will be completed in time for the reopening of school in September.

"We started last year looking at this and talking about designing it. It was almost like a matching program. We did half. They did half, and we were able to accomplish the project," Pickus said. She could not furnish the project cost, but did say in her written testimony that Abbott has spent $1.5 million on the Chicago after school science program it has developed with ASM, since 2007, "which includes not only direct program support, but also program research, development, evaluation, and scientific expertise.

Pickus said the Chicago effort was part of its partnership with After School Matters that began in 2006 when Abbott approached the nonprofit, leading to talks resulting in the launch of the STEM education program science37, which offers paid student internships at Abbott. According to the company's web site, key components of the program include hands-on lab work, seminars with Abbott scientists and a day-long visit to Abbott Molecular in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, Ill., to see – and be part of – a lab in action.

Since the launch, science37 has increased its number of workshop classes from two to 24, offered in three programs: An intro to lab techniques called Lab 101; Summer Science Experience, based on research into air and water quality at Harold Washington College, funded by the NSF; and the math literacy program T-Point.

The number "37" is the number of the vacant Chicago block transformed into the site of the various job training programs launched and run by After School Matters. The nonprofit last year served 30,000 students at 63 high schools and more than 100 community-based organizations across the Windy City.

While Abbott researchers engage in community outreach near the company's various locations, the company says its Chicago effort isn't identical to efforts in other communities served by the company. "You want some kind of standardization. You want to say, 'here's what works.' We don’t want to have to make it all different everywhere that we are. But it's also good when you get to pull in what the resources that are available are" in each community, accounting for a Chicago program more in tune with local needs, Pickus said.

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Pickus said Abbott is now working with Donald Wink, director of undergraduate studies in the chemistry department of the University of Illinois at Chicago, to develop a research program for the high school students enrolled in science37, along with undergraduate and graduate students from UIC.

Pickus and Wink rounded out the roster of witnesses who testified before the subcommittee. Wink, who is also director of graduate studies in UIC's Learning Sciences Research Institute, credited several programs with improving STEM education in Chicago:

• The NSF-funded Chicago Urban Systemic Program, which between in 2000, in 2006 resulted in the Chicago public schools developing a plan for improving math and science education, the Chicago Math and Science Initiative, as well as a doubling to more than 6,000 the number of teachers receiving professional development in math and science through UIC.

• Two phases of scholarship programs named for Robert Noyce, the inventor of the semiconductor, designed for professionals changing their careers to teaching. In the first phase, 91 teachers received stipends, of which 73 had completed either three or four years of teaching as of last year. The second phase, launched this year, includes a program that matches new participants with mentors who have previously completed the program, as well as a one-year masters of education program option for secondary school science for teachers of biology and other science specialties.

• Development of Instructional Development Systems providing professional and materials development in math and sciences for high school grades 9-11. Fourteen schools have implemented curricula for all three grades, while 11 schools in a second cohort began in 2007-08, and another 20 schools began the program this past school year. Science IDS programs are based at four Chicago-are universities — UIC as well as Loyola, Northwestern, and Illinois Institute of Technology.

• Chicago Transformation Teacher Institutes, funded earlier in July through the $787 billion federal stimulus program, or American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. CTTI will train 160 teachers — four cohorts each of 20 science and 20 math teachers — in life and environmental science, as well as math and physical science. Teachers will take part in leadership and teaching workshops, as well as develop changes for 12th grade science and math curricula, and refine the earlier changes to STEM instruction in grades 9, 10, and 11.

"CTTI is a deep research project addressing how university-based training can affect the elements of school capacity, teacher practice, and student outcomes,"

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