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The FOSS Materials Management Symposium: Keeping Your Investment Robust

Larry Malone, Co-Director of FOSS, Lawrence Hall of Science
September 24, 2002 | Materials Management

Top image: Symposium participants engage in the kit-refurbishment process.

On July 14 and 15, 2002, 26 FOSS educators from 15 school districts around the country traveled to Boulder, Colorado, for the first FOSS Materials Management Symposium. The purpose of the symposium was simply to share strategies and procedures for maintaining FOSS kits. That is, once the decision has been made to adopt FOSS as a district's science program and the kits are purchased, how do you ensure that the kits will be in A-1 condition for teacher after teacher to teach science efficiently?

Boulder was chosen as the rendezvous because Boulder Valley School District is home to one of the longest operating centers for FOSS materials management. John Delmonico and his full-time assistant, Sylvia Hall, serve the FOSS needs of 33 elementary schools (880 teachers) and 14 middle and K–8 schools (60 science teachers). There is a lot of valuable experience in the district that we would draw on to provide structure for the two-day meeting.

The symposium started Sunday morning with introductions. We discovered that about two thirds of the participants represented school systems that already have established materials support centers, ranging from large, sophisticated systems with impressive performance histories to start-up systems in their growth and development stages. The other third of the participants were in attendance to sponge up information that they could use to initiate support systems in the near future.

John laid a foundation for the symposium by presenting his center as a case history—one example of an approach that grew and evolved over time to become what it is today. He described his start-up, the growth phase, lessons learned and changes made, and the progression to a more and more mature and sophisticated operation. Following John's presentation, the group subdivided into discussion groups, providing opportunities for participants to share their models and identify the particular convergence of local policies, funding, resource availability, and partnerships that influence the character of a center. The presentation of the salient points that emerged from each small group discussion made it clear that one size and one flavor does not fit all systems and that there are an indeterminate number of models for supporting the material component of FOSS. But it also showed that there are elements that are common to all successful models, and those need careful consideration when designing a center.

John Delmonico

John Delmonico welcomes the group into his refurbishment center.

After lunch John presented an overview of his vision of starting a materials support center. In effect, the vision is a business plan. The center needs to be launched with the same care and many of the same considerations as starting a business. There are basic elements that need to be planned for, including space, personnel, office support, technical support, organism maintenance, inventory, storage, purchasing, production, transportation, tracking, budget, record keeping, and reporting. It is useful to have a mission statement and performance goals to keep the center's work focused and efficiency high. Some center models do not need to invest resources in all of the elements (the district might use a third party to deliver living organisms), but every element must be considered and provided for.

John devoted a few minutes to a discussion of the extended benefits that can accrue from the activities of a well-founded materials center. The primary function of the center is to lift the responsibility for maintaining the science teaching resource in tip-top condition from the teacher's shoulders. The center refills, shines, and delivers the kit on time, in perfect condition, on request. However, by monitoring kit use in terms of both titles requested and degree of utilization by teachers, John was able to recommend professional development on a specific kit to elevate the quantity and quality of its use. By producing reports and graphs based on kit use, Boulder is able to continuously evaluate the effectiveness of the service. The center is also able to respond to teacher special requests, such as providing additional supplies from a kit for take-home materials for students or for hosting family science events at school. This community relations dimension of the center's work is essential in the overall program to encourage community involvement in the science program.

John Delmonico

The Boulder Valley School District Science Center materials inventory is compact, complete, and efficient.

The first day concluded with a discussion of automation. At some point it will be advantageous to manage inventory (and much more) by computer. The participants had an opportunity to look at the program John had developed to control his materials inventory and reordering processes. The hard-working database is enriched with lots of efficiencies and goodies. It is designed to operate entirely by clicking buttons, making inventory management a clerical operation rather than an administrative one. The program can manage any number of FOSS module titles and any number of copies of the modules and makes adjustments for anticipated replenishment needs based on the age of the modules. The complete FOSS line-item catalog (consumable and permanent items) is available in the database, and each item is accompanied by a high-quality image of the item and specific tips for items that need careful consideration. At the end of the first day we were all thoroughly oversupplied with information—more than our individual computers could process immediately.

On Monday we rolled up our sleeves. We spent the day at the BVSD FOSS Science Center focusing on details. John shared his center's history of acquiring a cost-effective student and adult workforce from both within the district and outside. He described his strategies and methods for training the workers to find a place in the process—counting and prepackaging items, pulling items from inventory for refurbishing kits, moving and relocating kits, and so on. We discussed the procedures involved with teachers ordering, delivering, tracking, retrieving, refurbishing, and storing kits, as well as ordering inventory for replenishment, generating reports, and scheduling in-service for teachers. We looked at specialized tools that make the prepackaging of materials accessible and efficient.

And then we all had the personal experience of actually refurbishing a kit. John turned us loose on a batch of kits straight back from teachers. Guided by the refurbishment sheets developed by the center, we all were able to make the necessary judgments about every item in the boxes. We could mark the sheets to indicate the materials that needed to be restocked, permanent items that were missing, and permanent items that needed to be cleaned or repaired or that were simply worn beyond usefulness.

We concluded the symposium by touring the Boulder Valley FOSS Science Center. We walked the aisles of kits and gazed over the inventories of some thousand different FOSS kit items, ready to be called into service at a moment's notice. We looked at the spaces where center employees work on a variety of tasks associated with the maintenance of the kits and visited the living organism culturing, holding, and distribution room.

During our wrap-up discussion, several people commented on how efficiently the center uses time, space, and materials. The refurbishment area is surprisingly small. Every nook and cranny is employed. Kits are stored on edge to maintain a uniform height to the shelving. Hooks and hangers are used to extend the shelving. Items specific to one kit (e.g., 24-gauge insulated wire used only in the Magnetism and Electricity kit) are housed near the shelves storing that kit. Materials used in multiple kits, (e.g., jumbo soda straws, half-liter containers, and magnifiers) are housed in the frequent-use area. It all adds up to efficiency; condensed inventory means less time and energy spent rounding up materials and completing the refurbishment job.

The summary comments by the participants were enthusiastic. Everyone felt that the time had been well spent. The specific example of the Boulder Valley model provided a vision and a process, and the community of educators added extensive enrichment to the symposium by providing examples of alternative approaches that work in other specific situations.

Interestingly, John and Sylvia were the first to acknowledge the value of the open exchange of ideas, approaches, and solutions that the symposium provided. A system as dynamic as a science kit refurbishment center exists in a state of constant change, both proactive and responsive. Ideas are the capital of these kinds of creative enterprises.

It was generally agreed that the FOSS Materials Management Symposium should be a periodic event, perhaps even annual. Different well-established centers should be offered the opportunity to host the symposium. They could open their centers and invite their colleagues in to look at the operation and take away knowledge that will help them do an ever better job of supporting FOSS teachers in classrooms where the results of their labors can be seen shining in the students' eyes.

This first FOSS Materials Management Symposium was cosponsored by Boulder Valley School District, Delta Education, and the Lawrence Hall of Science. The combined efforts of the three institutions produced an excellent event. As we organize and process the wealth of information that flowed out of the symposium, we will produce a number of documents to help districts develop an efficient system for maintaining their kits.

We are already starting to think about the second symposium. If this sounds like something that your school district would like to attend, drop us a note and we'll put you on the list to be notified when the next event enters the active planning phase. For more information, contact Larry Malone at