The entire grant -- totaling $34 million ($28.5 million and a required 20 percent private-sector match) -- will fund the Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching Achievement (VISTA), a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) initiative headed up by George Mason University. The grant was received through the Investing in Innovation (i3) program, which is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Forty-nine i3 projects were recommended for funding, and VISTA was the only one in Virginia.
“This is very good news for both the College and the Commonwealth,” said William & Mary President Taylor Reveley. “Science education matters to the success of K-12 students. Thanks to this award, William & Mary’s School of Education will play an even larger role in ensuring that Virginia’s young students get a solid scientific foundation on which they can build for a lifetime.”
VISTA programs will take place on the campuses of the three main partner universities for the project: William & Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University and George Mason University. Three other universities are also serving as partners on the project: University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and James Madison University.
“We are thrilled to be part of VISTA,” said Virginia McLaughlin, dean of the School of Education. “This award builds upon our strengths in the STEM areas and will allow the School of Education to reach even more students and science educators throughout the Commonwealth. Its impact will be seen for years to come."
The award includes three major aspects. William & Mary is heavily involved in the first two, which are training for elementary teachers including summer science camps for elementary students and training for secondary, provisionally licensed science teachers. The third area is school district science supervision.
Juanita Jo Matkins, VISTA project manager for William & Mary, said that the purpose of the camps is to train elementary school teachers.
“They will plan and they will teach and they will reflect upon the experiences in the summer camp, and then they will plan the academic year units based upon what they’ve learned doing good, inquiry-based, engaging, exciting science in the summer camps,” she said.
The VISTA project will also offer coaches – most likely retired elementary teachers – who will visit the classrooms of the elementary school teachers during the academic year to provide assistance and support. The coaches will also help teachers connect with content experts.
The grant has provided funds for four faculty members to participate in VISTA as content experts for the teachers. The biology expert is a member of William & Mary’s faculty, Biology Professor Paul Heideman. The geology/earth science expert is at JMU. The chemistry expert is at VCU, and the physics expert is at Mason.
The grant also provides a small amount for a scientist or engineer to assist in the elementary classrooms, as well as the staff of the William & Mary STEM Education Alliance.
The summer camps will take place in the School of Education’s new building, with approximately 24 students and 20 teachers participating the first year. The following years, those numbers are expected to double, so by the end of five years, approximately 216 students and 180 teachers will have gone through the camps. The camps are aimed at a diverse population of students, including high-need kids, those from schools with many low-income families in their districts.
Matkins would like for one school at a time to send students to the camps so that “we’ll really get a sense of the impact we’ve had on a school.” She would also like schools to send groups of four or more teachers, grades four through six, at a time. Applications for the camp will be posted on the W&M VISTA Website.
Matkins, who has worked at similar camps at Mason in the past, said that they are extremely effective and that the elementary teachers become “true believers.”
“They begin the journey of accepting that, one, kids are really capable of good thinking and can understand a lot, and two, that ‘this is a very doable thing for me, as a teacher. I can do this,’” she said. “They begin to believe that they can do science in a way that the Virginia Standards of Learning and our national standards recommend science be done.”
In the fall after the teachers attend the camps, they will attend the Virginia Association of Science Teachers (VAST) conference to do some follow-up training and in later years to present on what they’ve done with all they’ve learned.
Training for secondary, provisionally licensed teachers
The second major area that William & Mary is involved in is induction and coaching for secondary pre-service teachers in science.
“What that means is that we’ll be training people who are hired to be teachers without any teacher education training,” said Matkins. “That happens in Virginia more often than you think.”
According to Paula Klonowski, science supervisor for the Virginia Department of Education, eight percent of Virginia's science teachers are provisionally licensed. As part of this project, William & Mary will provide provisionally licensed teachers two courses in science methodology, satisfying the coursework requirement for licensure. Such courses are already in place at William & Mary and George Mason.
The first course focuses on general methodology and competency and helps teachers gain self-confidence, said Matkins. The second course focuses on teaching diverse student populations and the use of technology in the classroom.
Provisionally licensed teachers will also receive a coach who is an experienced teacher in their subject area. Coaches actually go into classrooms with the teachers, and they sometimes serve as a liaison and advocate for the teacher. The coaches remain with their teachers for two years.
School district supervision
The third aspect of the project focuses on science supervision in the school districts.
“We have some wonderful science supervisors in the state of Virginia,” said Matkins. “But there are many school districts that cannot afford a science expert at the administration level.”
Realizing that this was a problem after talking about it with the Virginia Science Education Leadership Association (VSELA), the project coordinators decided to focus a portion of the project on providing leadership and support for science supervisors in rural and small school districts in Virginia. The science supervisors will come together next summer for the first time for a leadership academy, and then they will meet again at the VSELA conference in the fall. In the following summers, some of them will return to the VSELA conference to share their findings with new participants.
Matkins said that the scope and potential impact of the VISTA grant is “really inspiring.”
“At the end of five years, what we might see is a changed atmosphere for science education in Virginia,” she said.