Science Refurbishment Warehouse: Supporting FOSS Implementation through Management and Organization in McMinnville, Oregon

Erica Beck Spencer, FOSS Curriculum Specialist, The Lawrence Hall of Science, and Michelle Barff, FOSS Science Secretary, McMinnville School District, McMinnville, Oregon
September 14, 2015 | Materials Management

Let's be honest, a FOSS adoption is more complicated than a textbook adoption. Textbooks don't take up much space, are easy to distribute, and have pretty pictures. However, the initial "oohh" and "aahh" textbook enthusiasm will soon wane because children don't learn science by reading about it. If you're reading this article, you probably already believe in the benefits of an active-learning science curriculum and accept the need to order replacement parts, refill consumables, and deal with living organisms. The materials management required with FOSS is part of the work needed to bring out the glow in children's eyes as they experience the power of FOSS science investigations and engineering design challenges. Children regularly get so engaged in science that they may ask if they can stay in from recess to continue the exploration. This excitement about learning is worth the extra effort in materials management.

Science experiment

Science outside of the class room supporting the Water Module

Some large districts are able to establish refurbishment centers and to keep modules rotating and refilled regularly—it's a big job that requires a warehouse and employees. Oakland Unified School District in Oakland, California, got creative and established an internship and leadership program for high school students to help with the process. (See "Teen Interns Refurbish FOSS Modules in Oakland," FOSS Newsletter, Spring 2015). There are also refurbishment centers around the country that support multiple districts. For example, S.M.E.R.C. (Science & Math Education Resource Center) ESD 112 in Vancouver, Washington, supports 30 school districts, two state schools, and numerous private schools; the East Bay Education Collaborative (EBEC) in Warren, Rhode Island, refurbishes modules for schools and districts in Rhode Island and Connecticut; and the Van Allan Science Teaching Center (VAST) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, supports much of the eastern half of the state. There are many ways to successfully support the refurbishment process, but one that doesn't work very well is just having teachers fend for themselves.

McMinnville School District (MSD) in Oregon is an example of a smaller district that created a refurbishment center when they adopted FOSS. District-level leadership believed that in order for the implementation to be successful, they needed to support teachers with materials management. In 1992, Connie Dickman, the Director of Curriculum, chose Larry Fischer, a longtime biology teacher from McMinnville High School, to develop the program. Larry, reassigned as a Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA), along with Mary Fender a college student who graduated from McMinnville High School, designed the "backbone" that would support the adoption. They focused on scheduling, distribution, replenishment, replacements, materials for enrichment activities, and the storage of kits and supplies. Mary was responsible for management of the FOSS program along with art literacy and the Teacher Resource Center Library. They started with roughly 60 grade 3–5 FOSS modules that were housed in an area the size of a conference room. The program grew quickly to include other grade levels. As more FOSS modules were purchased, the center had to upgrade to two attached modular trailers with a combined area of about 1,800 square feet. This space provided room to meet the increased demand for the next few years. With steady growth in 2005, the refurbishment center moved again to its current larger home.

The decision to invest in FOSS was made by seasoned educators who knew that if there wasn't a central location to support teachers, modules would end up "pirated" and neglected in school closets. The goal of establishing a materials management center was to bear the maintenance responsibility for teachers and make it as easy as possible for them to concentrate on science instruction instead of hunting down supplies on their own. Initially, the refurbishment center supported McMinnville's six elementary schools, two middle schools, and two other smaller districts in neighboring communities. Currently, the refurbishment warehouse is dedicated to McMinnville schools.

How Does It Work?

The district has tried a couple of different ways to rotate FOSS modules. Originally, sets were rotated between schools and at each grade level. The modules were taught and then sent back to the warehouse for refurbishment three times a year. This approach has advantages, but it also had drawbacks. Teachers were finding it difficult to use the modules within the set time frame while meeting their other obligations. As the 2011–12 school year approached, the curriculum department team decided to send one complete set of FOSS modules to each of the six elementary schools and let them remain there for the entire school year. Teachers provided immediate feedback that they were happy and that the new system worked better with all of their teaching obligations. Each school and teaching team could now plan out the science units without a return deadline.

So how did the refurbishment warehouse make it possible for several teachers in the same school to team teach the same module at the same time? The refurbishment center ordered extra materials. For example, for the FOSS Insects Module, extra butterfly cages were ordered, and for the FOSS New Plants Module, extra lamp fixtures and lamp frames were ordered. In the warehouse, there are enough materials stocked so that if several teachers want to teach the same unit at the same time, they can do so. Teachers voiced their needs and requests, and the district did its best to cover everyone's needs.

The ease of having the materials and animals delivered, along with timely replenishing of consumable supplies and food, is critical. The ability to work with living organisms and participate in hands-on science activities is so engaging for students. It takes their learning to a much higher level. With all of the other responsibilities we have as teachers, it is such a valuable asset to have our ready-made kits and support from the science warehouse. I am always confident that I will have the materials I need to teach high-quality science lessons that my students will love!

—Kori Zinda, fourth-grade teacher, Memorial Elementary School

Teacher Ready

Bags for small items

Smaller items stored in large labeled zip bags for easy access

McMinnville teachers have great success with FOSS in part because the refurbishment center prepares "teacher ready" modules. For example, in the FOSS Levers and Pulleys Module, the cording for the pendulums is measured, cut, and taped in advance, and for the FOSS Solids and Liquids Module, the liquids are measured into the 120 mL bottles. Patton Middle School Principal Brian Crain, a former secondary science and math teacher, commented that having the FOSS kits arrive in the school "teacher ready" saves a lot of time in teacher preparation. FOSS kits allow consistency between classrooms and are supportive to teachers who might not have a strong science background.

Teachers receive a set of copy masters so that the original black line masters are not misplaced, posters and calendars are laminated to extend their lives, and when possible, items are packaged according to the investigation and small items are packaged in a large zip bag and labeled. All of this work is done at the refurbishment center to save teachers time and to improve the impact on student learning.

Living Organisms

The center also provides all living organisms. Crickets, mealworms, earthworms, and goldfish are purchased locally. Other living organisms are ordered through a biological supply company: crayfish, red wigglers, pond snails, and hissing roaches, to name a few. Several of these living organisms are also maintained throughout the year in the refurbishment center: darkling beetles quickly reproduce, earthworms and red wrigglers live quietly in worm bins creating compost, idle crayfish lounge in large aerated tubs of water, and hissing roaches always provide a source of conversation with visitors.

Land snails cannot be shipped into Oregon, but that has not been a problem. There are several neighborhoods where snails can be found locally. Arrangements are made to drop off empty habitats with MSD students and their families, who are more than willing to supply the needed snails from their yards.

MSD is also sensitive to the evasive species laws in Oregon. Classroom organisms are not released back into the wild, which explains why so many end up finding a home at the center. There has not been a need to order crayfish or hissing roaches in years.

The FOSS warehouse at Patton is the main reason why my students love science. All the lessons are prepared and ready to go. I only need to spend a few minutes to grab the specific materials and my class is ready to go for a fun, engaging, and thought-provoking lesson.

The live organisms are always a hit in the room. I normally teach the Insects Module during the first few months of the year. That way, parents and grandparents can be led around the room by my budding entomologists. Students also tell me that the highlight is being able to have their very own mealworm at their desk to observe. This would not be possible without the FOSS warehouse and the organization of Michelle. She is vital to its success.

—Brian Bixler, second-grade teacher, Newby Elementary

Taking Inventory

Once a teacher has finished teaching a FOSS module, she or he must fill out an inventory sheet. The inventory sheet helps keep track of what is still in the box as well as what needs to be replaced. Teachers can then e-mail the sheets to let the refurbishment center know what materials need to be restocked. These "orders" are then filled and the kit restocked. Each FOSS module is hand checked in the school in which it is housed twice a year, during winter and spring breaks. Inventory sheets are checked, items are restocked, and a report is sent to building principals and the curriculum director letting them know which modules have been or are currently being used. This report also shows which classes and what grade levels have participated in science activities outside of the classroom.

Prepared FOSS Kits

Prepared FOSS kit with teacher-supplied items and supplemental teaching materials added

Items listed in the Investigations Guide as "teacher supplied" are provided by the center to make things easier for teachers, so the center created a new inventory sheet to replace the one FOSS provides. For example in the FOSS Insects Module the additional items of sugar, oat cereal, wax paper, transparent tape, egg cartons, ant farm, insect house, measuring cups, and measuring spoons are provided. In addition, suggested reading materials and any additional supplemental materials are also included. In the FOSS Insects Module, insect life cycle models have been inserted. Adding additional resources changes how the FOSS boxes need to be packed in order for everything to fit. The center sends most sets of FOSS boxes with an additional tub that holds bulky or heavy items.

One person manages the warehouse. While there are no downtimes in the warehouse, there are quiet periods that are used for prepping materials that will be used in the future. There are always items that need to be hand delivered to teachers, science experience field trips to schedule busing for, data to keep track of, and purchasing to complete. District couriers need to be coordinated to move complete sets of modules back and forth between the schools and the refurbishment center. School custodians need to be alerted to help with the in-building sorting process. Approximately 135 circulating FOSS modules are returned to the warehouse in the spring. The warehouse stores over 250 assorted science kits. In addition to all this work, effort is made to repair items instead of replacing them; it stretches the science budget farther.

It has been almost 25 years since FOSS was adopted by the McMinnville School District and the forethought in creating a staff position and establishing a refurbishing center has made it possible to reach the level of success they experience. Michelle Barff, the current FOSS Science Secretary, is now the solo employee for the center and continues to seek feedback from teachers and refine things as necessary to improve the ability of teachers to teach science.

The FOSS staff wishes to thank Michelle, for going above and beyond the call of duty, and other unsung heroes like her for all that they do to help make the work teachers do easier and ultimately for impacting the lives of thousands of children. For more on FOSS use in the McMinnville School District, see FOSS Newsletter, Spring 2013 No. 41.