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Summary of Challenging Courses and Curricula Workshop September 25-27, 2005


The RETA project, "Facilitating Math/Science Partnerships," of the Center for Education (National Academies) and the National Science Resources Center (National Academies and Smithsonian Institution) developed a series of workshops to help MSP grantees and future applicants improve K-16 STEM programs. In April and September 2005, the project presented a two-part workshop on "Challenging Courses and Curricula," one of the Key Features of the MSP program. As with other NAS workshops, participants were presented with highlights from research on the topic, and presenters directed attention to some of the implications and implementation issues emerging from the research. There was then ample time for the attendees to work as teams to consider the implications of these ideas for their own projects' engagement with the notion of "challenging courses and curricula."

The workshop in April was preceded by discussions at the Learning Network meeting, and also on MSPnet. Jay Labov and his staff summarized the April workshop in a memo, which paved the way for September's session.

At the September workshop, attendees from 7 projects were given the opportunity to work on specific courses, workshops, or curricula that they had in prospect. To stimulate their thinking, several speakers made presentations. On Sunday, Ruth Parker, of the Mathematics Education Collaborative presented video of several teachers and principals discussing what makes for "challenging" learning experiences, reinforcing the importance of reflection, inquiry, and deep engagement in the content of the study (whether math or science). Brian Drayton, of MSPnet, along with Mary Colvard and Herb Brunkhorst of the NRC steering comittee, introduced the main points raised. Drayton also discussed how MSPnet has helped, and can help, projects carry on their exploration of this question, both internally and with people from other projects. Deborah Hughes Hallett (on math) and Sharon Sherman (on science) led concurrent sessions taking different approaches to the creation (and importance) of challenging learning experiences for teachers. The teams then spent the rest of the afternoon discussing what they learned in the afternoon, and beginning work on a specific piece of curriculum (for teachers or students).

Monday began with an important presentation by Mark Kaufman, of TERC and the Steering Comittee, which pointed out that the MSPs have much to learn from the preceding NSF systemic change projects. As a case in point, he presented results from Horizon Research's study of the Local Systemic Change projects, which sought to use standards-based materials and practices to influence teachers' learning and practice.

Then Dr. Barbara Tewksbury, Professor of Geology at Hamilton College, led two sessions on her successful approach to developing challenging curricula and courses. (Click here to download her PowerPoint presentation, also available in Flash format). She presented a course-design strategy that starts with the definition of goals with reference to the things students should be able to do at the end, which reflect key practices of professionals within the field. (For a tutorial on using this strategy, click here.) This challenging mini-workshop was followed by concurrent math and science sessions: Dr. Patsy Wang-Iverson (Research for Better Schools) and Richard Askey, Professor of Mathematics, U. Wisc-Madison, gave a valuable overview of the real implications of the TIMSS studies for American students' strengths and weaknesses in mathematics. Then they used TIMSS videos from Japanese and American classrooms to examine how one can make a course challenging in such a way that it is also more accessible and meaningful to the diverse students in a typical class. Terry Favero, Prof. of Biology, U. of Portland discussed a local field-based earth science course, as a way to examining the values (and problems) with field-based science experiences for educators. Benefits and challenges were examined from the point of view of faculty, curriculum, facilities, and institutions. Again, the math and science sessions each met twice, with team work periods in between.

On the final morning, teams presented some notes on lessons learned during the workshop, and "actionable" items they had identified for immediate, near-term, and longer-term implementation in their MSPs. Unlike earlier discussions of this "key feature," no "consensus document" about challenging courses and curricula was sought, but the attendees were engaged directly in clarifying their own understandings, and working to apply them in concrete ways to their mission. MSPnet was identified as a valuable tool to keep this engagement alive, within and between project teams.

Jay Labov and his team at the NAS are preparing "proceedings" documents for all their workshop sessions, which will provide full details of the discussions and content. In the meantime, MSPnet will make some of the materials available, starting here with Barbara Tewksbury's power point presentation (also available in Flash format).