CU, UCAR and DPS Partner to Create Web-Based Teaching Tool for Denver Science Teachers

Published: June 17, 2010

The University of Colorado at Boulder is working with Denver Public School science teachers to help customize classroom science instruction using a specially designed digital library tool that will be increasingly valuable to teachers as their classrooms continue to diversify.

Known as the Curriculum Customization Service, the project's goal is to provide teachers with a web-based tool that incorporates educational digital library resources to customize science curriculum in order to better meet the needs of diverse learners.

The service was created by Digital Learning Sciences, a joint center of the Institute of Cognitive Science at CU-Boulder and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, or UCAR.

"Our vision was to create a teacher-friendly software tool that would help teachers to be more effective in their curriculum planning and in classroom instruction," said CU-Boulder Associate Professor Tamara Sumner, the executive director of Digital Learning Sciences.

"The long-term goal in this particular project is to give teachers the tools they need to be effective in engaging students in science. Teaching science is hard to begin with and when you throw in the added complexity of having such a large range of knowledge, skills and abilities in the classroom, you absolutely have to think about how you customize your instruction to really energize all of your students," she said.

The researchers provided the web-based tool to 124 middle and high school Earth science teachers in Denver Public Schools for the 2009-10 academic year.

"We picked Earth science in part because the Digital Library for Earth System Education is operated and curated here at the National Center for Atmospheric Research library and we knew it was filled with great middle and high school content that was ready to go," Sumner said.

Preliminary results from fall 2009 show that roughly half of the DPS Earth science teachers given access to the service have integrated it into their teaching practices to a significant extent. Many of these teachers report that the service makes it easier for them to integrate digital resources into their teaching and allows them to customize their instruction to support English-language learners and other diverse learners.

"An unintended outcome of the project is the creation of a virtual professional learning community," said Patty Kincaid, secondary science coordinator for DPS. "As a result, resources from the digital libraries were tagged and shared so other district teachers could benefit from the planning and expertise from others efforts, input and feedback."

Educational digital libraries provide access to collections of high-quality, interactive teaching and learning resources including classroom activities, simulations, animations, imagery, virtual labs and scientific data developed by scientists, science education specialists and federal and state agencies.

DPS teachers have used the customization service in a variety of ways, Sumner said. One of the most popular features is the collection of animations because these visualizations make complicated Earth science topics more understandable to kids.

For example, at the ninth-grade level students spend a lot of time learning about plate tectonics, such as how volcanoes are formed or what happens when two continental plates collide, Sumner said. It's difficult for a typical ninth-grader to fully understand the complex process by reading about it, but seeing animated demonstrations of what's happening when plates collide makes it much more accessible to a wide range of learners.

"One of the big goals in K-12 is to give every student who graduates a solid science education so they at least have the option of moving on to college," Sumner said. "As we strengthen high school graduation requirements, we need to give teachers the tools they need to actually make that possible. Hopefully, this service will be a useful tool for many teachers."

The Curriculum Customization Service was developed in collaboration with a team of DPS science teachers over an 18-month period and was funded by the National Science Foundation's National STEM Education Distributed Learning program.