U-M program boosts Detroit science test scores

February 2, 2006
  • umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—A class of Detroit middle school students scatters outside their school using PDAs with custom software to track and identify wildlife. They’re enjoying a scavenger hunt as their science aptitude soars.

More than 2,000 Detroit Public School students each year participate in BioKIDS, the University of Michigan School of Education and Museum of Zoology program that uses technology and hands-on learning methods to help middle school students ask questions the way scientists do.

The five-year program, now starting its final year, has demonstrated favorable results for urban Detroit students, including contributing to an average gain in science abilities of a full grade level on state standardized tests.

While 66 percent of middle school students in the state of Michigan pass their state standardized science tests, just 30 percent of Detroit students have done the same. But for Detroit students using U-M’s BioKIDS curriculum, those rates soar to 42 percent, a significant effort toward closing the gap between urban students and students in the rest of the state.

Nancy Butler Songer, a professor of science education and learning technologies in U-M’s School of Education, developed the program and believes similar methods could be adopted by school districts nationwide. A main goal of the plan is to turn science students into working scientists who gather data and test their theories in fun activities such as charting the wildlife in their own neighborhood.

The fifth- and sixth-grade students use PDAs with special age-appropriate software developed by the U-M Museum of Zoology to help identify and track a variety of wildlife. The program focusing on both science content and complex reasoning evolves over a multi-unit curricular program in life science, ecology, atmospheric science and physics/motion.

The lessons teach them about biodiversity and how organisms meet their needs and the role the environment plays in supporting a variety of organisms.

For example, students might collect animal sighting data and habitat information from their schoolyard or construct food webs using schoolyard data to examine the importance of each link in the web. They then make conclusions using their findings to support their arguments.

“We ask them to use the information rather than just memorize it,” Songer said, adding that learning how to ask” why” and back up their theories helps them to learn more and perform better on tests.” They develop scientific explanations using scientific evidence. They get dramatically closer to grade level.”

Songer is a pioneer in using technology in the classroom. Fifteen years ago, she was the first non-scientist to be honored at the White House with a Presidential Faculty Fellowship for her groundbreaking work in studying the educational value of the Internet.

Songer’s BioKIDS project is supported by major awards from the Interagency Educational Research Initiative and the National Science Foundation. The future of such support was put into doubt in December when Congress approved a series of bills cutting 2006 funding for NSF and other agencies supporting research in science and science education.

Songer testified before Congress earlier this year on the value of the U-M project as officials debated whether to slash support for science education by as much as 46 percent. In his 2006 State of the Union Tuesday, President Bush proposed an” American Competitiveness Initiative” to greatly increase support for science and math education.

U-M studies have followed the knowledge development of BioKIDS participants, finding they have nearly three times the average poverty rate of other students in Michigan, Seventy percent of the students receive a free/reduced lunch as compared to 26.7 percent state average, and 94 percent are minorities. But the improvements in their science skills after a year in the program were dramatic.

More on the BioKIDS programMore on Songer