Systemic Reform of Science Education at Grant Middle School in Marion, Ohio

Gordon Aubrecht, Ohio State University at Marion, and Bill Schmitt, Science Center of Inquiry, Fountain Hills, Arizona
March 02, 2009 | Science Reform

Top image: The sixth-grade teachers work on an investigation from the FOSS Mixtures and Solutions module.

Toward the end of the 2007—08 school year, the FOSS staff at the Lawrence Hall of Science received a phone call from Bill Schmitt, a colleague who had previously teamed with FOSS during the Galaxy Classroom project. Bill heads the Science Center of Inquiry (SCI) in Arizona. He was helping the Marion City School District get some input about inquiry-based curriculum to use in the middle school to help reform science teaching and learning in the district. The Marion City School District includes a single middle school, Grant Middle School, having consolidated all four of its middle schools into one in 2004.

The reform effort was funded by The Ohio Department of Education with additional funding from the Marion City School District and The Ohio State University (OSU). The project was developed through a partnership involving Carol Ballinger and Robbie Troll from Marion City Schools; Gordon Aubrecht, OSU physics professor; Chris Andersen, OSU Office of Research; Bill Schmitt; the Grant Middle School science teachers; and other community partners. The goal of the project is to increase student achievement in science by moving toward a more inquiry-based and materials-supported teaching and learning model. The FOSS curriculum had been identified as a possible vehicle to support this effort as teachers made the transition from a mostly textbook-based curriculum to a more active, inquiry-focused program of teaching and learning.

The project decided to adopt a number of the FOSS Middle School science courses and several of the grades 5—6 modules. A big element of the project is an extensive teacher professional development program for the 2008—09 school year. The professional development involves all of the district's middle school science teachers, grades six to eight. The project draws heavily on the success of several past initiatives with Marion City School District teachers that introduced inquiry-based teaching strategies and standards-based science content through summer institutes, online collaboration during the school year, and classroom observation.

This project was made possible by a commitment from the Marion middle school science teachers and the union to undertake reform in their school. In August 2008 all of the 15 middle-school teachers engaged in an intensive institute (64 contact hours). Bill Schmitt and Gordon Aubrecht began the institute by demonstrating inquiry learning through selected FOSS investigations and other activities. They challenged teachers to take on the role of students and to begin struggling in the same way their students might when the responsibility for finding the answers to inquiry questions becomes theirs, and not that of the teacher or textbook.

During the institute, each grade level team also unpacked and reviewed investigations for the first of three FOSS modules assigned to their grade level. Each grade-level group presented a FOSS investigation to the other teachers by the end of the institute. During the school year teachers in each grade implement two additional FOSS modules or courses. Implementation of the new curriculum continued through the 2008—09 school year with more than 100 contact hours of professional development embedded into the school day. Contact hours include three professional development half-days distributed across the year; twice a week science department grade level meetings; classroom coaching (with debriefs); and weekly facilitated online collaboration. Gordon and Bill make visits to observe classrooms and meet with teachers, and Bill also interacts with students in the classroom via video-conferencing. During the summer of 2009, another institute will promote reflection on the academic year's work and provide further opportunity to investigate inquiry learning and science content (32 contact hours). This intensive 12-month program is providing teachers with over 210 contact hours of professional development for which they will receive graduate credit.

Over the academic year, teachers are challenged to learn both a new curriculum and apply new approaches. They are reexamining their traditional beliefs about teaching and learning. All of the teachers agree that the professional development time to develop the skills for inquiry teaching using FOSS is absolutely essential for implementation of this project. Marion City Schools has made the commitment to provide the time and support that allows them to become fully involved with the various aspects of professional development. The teachers work as grade-level and departmental teams that also provide valuable support as they experience the highs and lows of implementing the curriculum and teaching methods.

One way teachers communicate with each other and with Bill and Gordon is through a listserver. The teachers share insights and reflections about their efforts and their successes and concerns in the classroom through the listserver. The following are some reflections from each grade-level team about their experience so far this school year, from both the listserver (shown in alternate font) and some written by teachers specifically for this article. Their comments reflect the changes happening in both the classroom and personally since they returned to the classroom at the end of August 2008. Note that the months in parentheses indicate when teachers posted these comments to the listserver.

Grade 6

Sixth-grade teachers: Barb Beach, Janeen Heilman, Jon Ratliff, Rita Robinson, and Leeann Teynor

Solar-heated boxes

Sixth-grade students at Grant Middle School were challenged to create solar-heated boxes.Why do you think students used aluminum foil on the boxes? Which box do you think achieved the highest temperature after four hours in sunlight in October? Look for the answers at the end of this article.

Student with solar-heated box

Barb Beach (September)

I really admire the attitude of this team of teachers! There have been so many frustrations and obstacles (in particular the behavior and time issues), but they keep plugging away with how to make these frustrations turn into triumphs for their kids—and of course there have been some! They are determined to make it work and I think it's helped to hear all of the positive comments from others who are seeing successes in their rooms. It also helps to keep a sense of humor, and this team certainly has no problem with that!

Jon Ratliff (November)

I had a discussion with my students about what they learned from the Solar Energy module. They informed me that this was the most fun they have ever had in science, but honestly "we don't think that we learned anything." I realize this comment (which was echoed by the whole class) can be broken down in many ways. I just hope that it's not true.

P.S. I asked the same question to the next class...and they thought that the previous class was nuts. They expressed that they learn better when they get a chance to "play" with stuff. At least the second class made me feel a little bit better.

Leeann Teynor (December)

We did the "Saturation Puzzle" in which students are given a mystery chemical and try to figure out what it is by using the saturation procedures we have done with kosher salt and citric acid.

It was really interesting to hear them make their predictions by just observing the crystals of the mystery chemical. They argued about what they thought it was, and I told them they were to make their own predictions, not a group prediction (which I figured they would all decide as a group— since they rarely follow directions—but to my amazement many students went with their own instincts).

The fun was to have them "rule out" what the chemical wasn't. They were given a chart which gave the number of grams needed to saturate 50 ml of water for each of the possible chemicals. And as they added more and found it dissolving they could easily say it's not that because, and it's not that because. Finally, even though we didn't have time to actually reach saturation, they knew what it was by observing and comparing it to what they already knew about the salt and citric acid.

Rita R. Robinson (December)

As I walk around my classroom observing each small group of students as they try to identify a mystery chemical I finally feel a bit of relief and think, "So this is what it's supposed to look like!"

Now don't get me wrong, my students didn't suddenly become perfect. In fact my classroom is far from ever quiet. Every surface has a sticky residue on it, and there is always a hint of kosher salt in the air. However, what I am finally able to observe are groups of students solving a problem using inquiry methods with FOSS module investigations. I am not telling them information; my students are working collaboratively to figure out a problem. We haven't always taught this way at Grant Middle School.

FOSS students investigating mystery rocks

Sixth-grade students determine the properties of a mystery rock as an Earth science extension. What hapens when you put blue food coloring on a piece of diatomaceous earth?

Comments by Rita R. Robinson

During two weeks in August 2008, the Grant Middle School science department met at the Ohio State University, Marion campus, to learn how to implement the FOSS science curriculum at each grade level. We have since spent the past 16 or so weeks helping our students to look at learning science in a completely different way than they have in the past. Rather than only reading and writing about science, with an occasional lab experience thrown in during each nine-week period, we are now asking students to experience science daily and record what happens. As you might imagine, at times it has been like trying to herd feathers in a windstorm. Sixth-grade students new to FOSS tend to expect recess when taken outside for solar energy investigations. But we know we are making progress. The majority of our students are now able to use an inquiry process to conduct independent investigations within the FOSS modules. Asking questions and helping one another in group settings has become more comfortable and commonplace for them.

As science teachers, we have gone above and beyond dedicated this year. We have commiserated and celebrated with each other through our FOSS lessons and in online dialogues. We are finally at a point of seeing progress in our classrooms. Although the change has been and continues to be challenging for teachers and students alike, we all can agree that the level of insight we gain about our own abilities in teaching through inquiry is well worth the effort and energy we've put in this program. This is what success feels like.

Grade 7

Seventh-grade teachers: Heather Harper, Karen Hennessy, and Beth Houdashelt

Heather Harper (November)

We made clouds in bottles today, so cool. Students made connections to pressure and temperature with our investigation from yesterday. I was amazed listening to student responses of what needed to be added to the bottle to create clouds. Most students remembered the convection chamber and thought of what the incense did for the chamber. They asked some great questions about how clouds form and what they need to form.

Comments from all of the seventh-grade teachers

Seventh-grade students have made great strides in the Weather and Water Course. We discovered that no other science curriculum has provided our students with a better foundation of inquiry-based knowledge.

Our summer training consisted of two full weeks unpacking our FOSS boxes and completing various investigations with the support of Dr. Aubrecht and Bill Schmidt. The ready access to this expert information was irreplaceable and is still valued during our weekly meetings. This time was also invaluable for us to learn the material in a new inquirybased direction and to strengthen our professional teaching relationship with one another.

Support from Marion City Schools has been integral to the success of FOSS in many ways. Besides funding the curriculum, they have excused us from district training programs to allow us to learn our new science curriculum. They have invited us to speak at various meetings to share our experiences and redesigned our teaming schedule to allow for weekly meetings.

While we have grown professionally during this undertaking, our students have evolved exponentially. They have gone from expecting reading assignments and worksheets with an occasional hands-on activity thrown in to learning how to work effectively in various cooperative groupings and conduct active investigations. We have noticed an increase in our students' recollection of various science concepts because of these hands-on activities. Students are also readily able to make connections between concepts that were merely regurgitated vocabulary words previously. Because of their engagement and interest in the investigations, we have also noticed fewer discipline issues. Many students comment that science has become their "favorite" class because they are more interested and excited about the possibilities they could experience everyday. The students also understand that missing a class is now missing an experience. We also share in the many "ah ha!" moments along with our students. We have heard an autistic student speak to help other students understand Earth's rotation. We have had students that were previously struggling who are now able to accurately pinpoint sunrise and sunset to the minute. We have students that are now able to reflect on their own thinking, with questions and substantial evidence of contemplation. Most monumental are the students who began as uninterested and unreachable through traditional curriculum materials who are now willing to try, willing to fail, and still willing to try again, which we know is at the very core of all science knowledge.

The biggest challenge we face implementing FOSS is the lack of time. Even after adopting 60-minute class periods, we rarely find this to be sufficient to allow for preparation, investigation activities, related readings, discussions, questions, and cleanup. Because the FOSS investigations are the backbone of understanding, student absences are also difficult to manage. But having taught FOSS for the last four months we are fully aware of what our previous curriculum was missing; students must DO science. And we, as their teachers, must be prepared to teach them how to DO science. The FOSS materials provided the guidance to help us address the interests and maturity of the middle school students, as well as the means to meet the content requirements of state testing.

Grade 8

Eighth-grade teachers: Angie Crosley, Rick Fogle, Aaron Miller, Teri Rizzo, and Tim Tanner

FOSS students investigating air trolleys

These eighth-grade students investigate the air trolleys from the FOSS Force and Motion Course.

Tim Tanner (September)

My word of the month to describe my students is "ENGAGED"!!! The biggest difference I see using the FOSS kits is that my students are not always waiting for me to give them more direction with the daily lesson. Now, we discuss what we will be doing as class first begins, then as we get into the meat of the subject matter.

Teri Rizzo (September)

I am very much out of my comfort zone. Never having taught science, and then having to teach two FOSS kits (at different grade levels). I don't know if I am coming or going.

Aaron Miller (November)

We were tracking our shadow data and one of my special-ed students said, "The shadows change from date to date. When we tracked the data from October 2 and October 21, we plotted the points on a graph and connected the dots for each individual date. At the beginning of the year the points went in a 'frown' shape and as we got closer to the equinox, the line flattened out. Now the line is turning into a smile."

Rick Fogle (December)

Engagement is the key word. As the eighth-grade students worked through the Earth History Course, they were more engaged than eighth graders we have worked with in the past. I truly believe this is due to the delivery system of the FOSS program. Students are pulled into the curriculum by the hands-on activities; the readings are short and to the point. The "textbooks" that the readings come from are not viewed as "another book we have to read" but a book that will be used to help increase understanding.

Angie Crosley (December)

Students are engaged and a month after the investigation I have a majority of my students that can still name and describe the different types of sedimentary rock. I am also impressed that many times my inclusion class is among the highest as far as class averages and has some of the most engaging class discussions/questioning.

Comments from the Project Directors

Graduate instructors from The Ohio State University have provided instruction to the Marion middle school teachers to assist in changing teaching practice that could lead to improved student achievement on state science assessments. Early on in the Marion professional development efforts, the teachers experienced how frustrating it can be as students themselves not to have questions answered and then get the satisfaction in coming through with their own answers based on their own observations. Without experiencing the frustration themselves during the summer workshop, their appreciation for inquiry could not have been built. The teachers are to be commended for their willingness to explore uncomfortable new intellectual and emotional territory.

Several special initiatives grew out of the project. Two teachers, Krista Dendinger and Marcia Pitts, have been designated by the district to be math coaches. They have provided support by giving essential tips and valuable assistance as the science inquiry has been implemented. Krista and Marcia had implemented inquiry in mathematics in the Marion elementary schools where they work, and their experience has been invaluable to the middle school science teachers.

Teri Rizzo is a science resource teacher at Grant Middle School and has responsibility for teaching sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade special education students. The school expected that she could "pick up" FOSS for each grade level and implement it. Without the extraordinarily kind assistance of her fellow teacher, Karen Hennessy, Teri would have been seriously challenged by the implementation. Karen assisted by including the seventh-grade resource students in one of her classes. Working together, Teri and Karen made an impossible situation workable. Finally, Grant Middle School has two science teachers who teach "advanced" students. One of them, Barb Beach, who teaches sixth and seventh grades, found out about the program and joined the project. She has not implemented FOSS, but she has been using inquiry with her advanced classes and using the ideas and strategies she learned during the summer institute. We are working to extend the FOSS materials beyond the classroom. Teachers are convinced that the socioeconomics of Marion limits the utility of homework. They believe that students' parents will not be involved with students and their homework and that students themselves are not motivated to make the effort outside of the classroom. The teachers are encouraged to assign simple kinds of homework so that students can extend what they learn in the classroom. Supplemental materials in astronomy for eighth grade are being developed, and teachers give simple assignments designed to help students see the heavens differently. The assignments include monthly trips outdoors, starting in August and continuing through the school year, to track sun shadows. Some homework assignments involve observing the night sky.


The process of implementing FOSS curriculum and techniques continues to encourage inquiry learning in the Grant Middle School science classrooms. Bill and Gordon's team of instructors continue do their best to encourage reflection and model inquiry for the teachers during class sessions, group meetings, and in the Web-based exchanges in which teachers participate. They continue to explore the science content with teachers to extend their understanding beyond what is provided in the FOSS courses and modules.

For questions about this project, contact:

Answers to earlier questions:

Afer the activity, the students found out for themselves that blackboxes reached higher temperatures after the same exposure to the Sun than the foil-covered boxes. Students chose foil for their boxes because it is "used in cooking on grills and in ovens."