Emory Report
Sept. 5, 2006
Volume 59, Number 2


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Sept. 5, 2006
PRISM program shines a light on science

By Beverly Clark

Astronomer Nicolas Copernicus’ sun-centered theories of the universe are on trial again, this time in a South DeKalb science classroom at Columbia Middle School.

Instead of a dry lecture and drill on Copernicus’ foundational theories of modern astronomy from the 1500s, students enthusiastically play the roles of judge, jury and lawyers as an innovative way to learn about our solar system.

Eighth grade science teacher Dericka DeLoney and Emory graduate student Aron Barbey lead the exercise, but it’s the students who are noting the facts, asking the open questions, and coming up with their own theories—much like any scientist tackling a new problem. And boredom is definitely at bay. “You’re working, but you’re having fun,” said eighth-grader Markiesha Lucas.

At a time when the National Academies of Science and others are sounding a loud alarm over the poor state of science in our nation’s schools, DeLoney and Barbey are at the forefront of an inquiry-based science education movement that seeks to reverse the trend.

They are both participants in PRISM, an Emory program that matches the content knowledge of science graduate students with the teaching skills of educators to create lessons focused on problem-based learning (PBL), a growing national trend. Together they develop investigations focused on “big ideas” in science and math that work to create what they call “a compelling need to know” within students.

“The PBL works because it pushes the students to be dependent on themselves to find the answers, and not just have the answers handed to them,” DeLoney said.

PRISM, which stands for Problems and Research to Integrate Science and Mathematics, uses real-world applications to teach the basics of science. Instead of focusing on minutia, the students learn detail through concepts. For example, principles of chemistry can be communicated through looking at water quality issues.

Other PBL lessons have included one on infection control and outbreak that involves swabbing surfaces around a school to find and identify different types of bacteria. Other students have learned about math and physics by building model planes using basic principles of engineering.

“This is a wonderful outreach to local schools by Emory. No one knows everything, and it has been a great benefit to me as a teacher to have the knowledge of the graduate students in helping to bring the excitement of science to my students,” DeLoney said.

PRISM was founded in 2003 by Emory chemistry professor Jay Justice, Center for Science Education director Pat Marsteller, and Assistant Dean for Science Education Preetha Ram. Starting out in just four schools, the program so far has involved nearly 50 pairs of teachers and graduate students, and it has reached more than 2,400 students in metro Atlanta.

PRISM, which is run by Emory’s Center for Science Education, is now in its fourth year and was recently refunded by a five-year, $2 million National Science Foundation grant. This year, PRISM participants are in six middle and high schools in Atlanta, DeKalb and Decatur, with 11 teachers participating.

PRISM is beginning to bear positive results in test scores: In 2004-2005, 100 percent of eighth graders who participated in PBL lessons taught by PRISM teachers met or exceeded standards on the state science tests—15 percent more than all the eighth graders combined. PBL experience also increased the pass rate for eighth graders on the inquiry domain of the science test by 13 percent.

A recent survey by the Center for Science Education also indicates that students involved in the PRISM program showed improvement in their self-confidence in science-related abilities, interest in science, and attitude toward science, particularly at the high school level.

“We found significant increases in students’ belief that science is interesting, and in students’ confidence in their abilities to present scientific information to classmates and write reports using scientific data as evidence,” said Jordan Rose, PRISM program coordinator.

The program also serves as a training ground for graduate students, providing them with comprehensive career development as teachers and vital communication skills as scientists.

“It’s been an incredible opportunity to gain further training and experience as a teacher,” said Barbey, a graduate student in the psychology department’s cognition and development program, who is in his second year with PRISM.

“I’ve seen how problem-based learning illustrates the foundations of science, and teaches students how to engage in the process of discovery. This will, I hope, inspire the next generation of scientists, leading to new questions and uncovering further mysteries that deepen our appreciation for the amazing world we live in.”

For more information on PRISM, go to: http://www.cse.emory.edu/prism/index.htm.