Originally published in The Weekly Packet, April 25, 2013
Blue Hill School Board struggles with science curriculum
Fails to elect chairman
by Anne Berleant
BLUE HILL—The school board was unable to elect a new chairman, an annual process, at its April 10 meeting. Nominated members Annie Rice and John Richardson split the available votes 2-2, with new member Janis Snow raising her hand for Rice and Ben Wootten for Richardson. (Susan Keenan was absent). The board will try again at its May meeting.
A discussion on selecting the eighth-grade life science curriculum quickly turned into a discussion of the new middle school science program in place this year.
When the Maine Physical Sciences Partnership (PSP) invited Blue Hill Consolidated School to join its program aimed at strengthening science education in rural Maine schools, Blue Hill Consolidated School signed on.
The program, helmed by University of Maine science and education researchers and funded by a five-year National Science Foundation grant, supplies materials, curriculum, and teacher training and professional development. It uses a hands-on, inquiry-based process that, in one unit, has students build a vehicle to learn about friction, motion and force through questioning the results of their experiments.
With its first year winding up, board members questioned the results of the inquiry-based approach to science.
“It should not have happened,” said Wootten, who was not on the board when it approved joining PSP.
The problem, board members made clear, is the fact that teachers are still being taught how to use it.
The board began its debate when faced with finding a life science program, which is taught in seventh or eighth grade and is not covered by Maine PSP, which recommends using SEPUP.
Following that recommendation “was a routine item” in Surry and Castine schools, which are also in the Maine PSP program, said Superintendent Mark Hurvitt.
In the Maine PSP program, sixth- and seventh-graders use SEPUP (Science Education for Public Understanding Program), which “makes science relate to the community,” said Erika Allison, a Maine PSP project director at the meeting.
However, eighth-graders use PBIS, or project based inquiry science, which Michael Whitman, a University of Maine educational researcher, told the board can be difficult without two years of SEPUP first.
Both SEPUP and PBIS are new for Maine teachers, who are not all trained specifically to teach science. To help, Maine PSP holds a two-week summer workshop for science teachers in the 50 schools participating in the program, along with bi-weekly meetings throughout the school year. Shared professional development of teachers is a major component of the program, said Whitman.
“I know it’s helped me as a teacher,” sixth-grade science teacher Katie Danielson told the board.
Wootten recommended dropping the PBIS program for eighth-graders and paying for three years of the SEPUP program, which he said would cost the school under $5,000. Currently, Maine PSP supplies all textbooks and materials.
BHCS could then lose their partnership with the Maine PSP program, and the professional development it gives their science teachers—as they adapt to the national “next generation” science standards released on April 9, which are for science what the common core standards are for math and English.
These new standards call for an integration of practice and concepts, including engineering, which the PBIS program teaches but SEPUP does not. Both programs were chosen by Maine PSP based on research and the recommendation of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The board will make its decision at its May meeting after checking to see if it could remain in the program without using PBIS.
“I believe in that model of inquiry,” said principal Della Martin. “And let’s face it, [prior to joining Maine PSP] our science curriculum was all over the place.”