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Science Materials Centers, Unite!

Leigh Agler, FOSS Developer, Anacortes, Washington
September 19, 2001 | Materials Management

It was a dream come true. Walking through Woodland Primary and Pleasant Valley Elementary in Vancouver, Washington, evidence of scientific investigations was everywhere. FOSS boxes were in use in every classroom. Aquariums, terrariums, graphs, drawings, and recordings of investigations were present in equal measure to displays of math and language projects. How does this happen? Behind every successful science program is a busy science materials center.

These particular schools are two of 55 schools served by the three staff people of ESD 112's Science Materials Center in Vancouver, Washington. They, along with a cadre of science specialists and volunteers, ensure that kits are inventoried, restocked, and delivered on time to every classroom. Critters also come and go from the materials center. Racks and racks of tubs with everything from snails to milkweed bugs are raised here and shipped out to the classes by their critter-care specialist.

On the day I visited, three large wading pools held adult crayfish, while another served as a nursery pool for minuscule crayfish young. Aquariums held aquatic plants, goldfish, guppies, and water snails. The center serves as a bit of a laboratory, too, for working out some of the "bugs" of critter care. The staff has discovered that cornmeal in the mealworm habitat makes an easy job of sifting out the mealworms. Zebrafish are replacing goldfish and surviving better in the classroom. When Elodea was difficult to obtain, they switched to hornwort. Periodic meetings of the SMC staff and the school science specialists provide an on-going process for airing problems and working out solutions.

Last May, representatives from seven science materials centers in Washington and Oregon came together for a mini Nuts-and-Bolts conference, organized by Bo Haldeman, Anne Kennedy, and the staff of the ESD 112 Science Materials Center in Vancouver, Washington. The idea for this conference, and others like it, grew out of a Next Steps institute hosted by Highline School District (WA) in 1997. The Next Steps institutes are put together by the Association of Science Materials Centers (ASMC) and the National Science Resources Center (NSRC), whose purpose is to help science education reform leaders implement inquiry science programs. As part of the conference in 1997, Kathleen Kearns from Highline co-lead a Nuts-and-Bolts strand about the actual nitty-gritty of materials center management.

One of the greatest outcomes of the 1997 meeting came from the pairing of attendees from similar locations. The managers of the SMCs from Palo Alto and Antioch, California, found themselves sitting side-by-side, having never met before. This spurred on an effort to search out other SMCs in the San Francisco Bay area. This effort blossomed into regional meetings held to share strategies, meet with vendors, and set up consortiums. Last fall, the Highline and Seattle SMCs hosted a two-day Nuts-and-Bolts conference that brought together science materials center staff from Washington, California, and the Einstein Project in Wisconsin.

The Association of Science Materials Centers is a network of people with expertise in supplying kit-based instructional materials to schools and who share a passion for systemic reform. ASMC's purpose is to bring together materials and resources that serve people responsible for the delivery of instructional materials in science. The vision of the ASMC is to create opportunities for science materials centers to share information on best practices, help new centers get off the ground, and develop partnerships with other centers, vendors, and foundations. Opportunities are publicized in a members newsletter, a listserv, and at annual meetings at the national NSTA conferences. Professional development is provided for educators, administrators, and instructional materials staff at their Next Steps institutes. Next Steps '01 is scheduled for this October in South Carolina.

The groups that gathered in May 2001 in Vancouver represented a wide variety of experience. The number of schools served by the centers ranged from 77 in the Seattle Public Schools (which translates to 2,560 kits) to six in the Linn-Benton ESD (36 kits). The Highline materials center has been going strong for 34 years, while the Battelle SRC in Kennewick is celebrating their first year of operation. One center may have streamlined their inventory process and another researched barcoding—together their individual efforts amount to a wealth of expertise.

Presentations at the conference included talks on the role of science specialists, a model project for organizing volunteers to stock inventory kits, an explanation of the FOSS revisions, and an open discussion of operating concerns, such as support books, staffing, and handling oversized items. One of the exciting outcomes of the meeting was the concept of forming cooperatives to purchase materials at a discounted bulk price. Although district requirements, services offered, and experience varied, together they shared a similar vision—that of providing appropriate materials to the students and enabling the teachers to do what they do best, that is, teach. These are the key ingredients to any science program.