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Vol. 7, No. 7: March 15, 2001

BioLEARN:
Wisconsin's Science Teachers Share Curriculum Ideas and Professional Development

by Jennifer Smith, TTT Editor

Since its launch in 1999, the BioLEARN project has linked Wisconsin life science teachers and their disciplinary colleagues in the UW System. The goals of the project are dual: the creation of a website with proven middle- and high-school classroom activities in biology, and the professional development of the secondary education teachers who participate. Professional development goals include training in technology, Wisconsin Model Academic Standards, and assessment of student learning. Networking opportunities with other teachers and college instructors are also emphasized. Although BioLEARN is based at the Center for Biology Education on the UW-Madison campus, its activities involve regional teams of educators throughout the state.

The BioLEARN logo
The BioLEARN logo

Jane Harris Cramer of UW-Madison and Scott Cooper of UW-La Crosse co-direct the BioLEARN project. Its initial phase, a two-year period funded in part by a UW System PK-16 Initiative Grant, is nearly complete. The project has united two pre-existing networks of science educators, BioNet and BioWeb. BioNet, an affiliate of the Wisconsin Society of Science Teachers, promotes networking among secondary biology teachers in Wisconsin. The BioWeb project, a collaboration among biology faculty and staff from UW System campuses, has created an interactive website for sharing undergraduate biology teaching resources. One of the first steps in launching BioLEARN was developing six regional teams, each of which includes a UW biology faculty or staff member and three to five high school biology teachers. As part of their initiation to the project, these groups began to transfer selected classroom teaching resources to a standardized, easily searchable web format. Using the web to gather and disseminate resources allows BioLEARN to sidestep differences among teachers in hardware and software choices.

During the summer, teams from all over the state came together at a workshop to receive training, network with each other, and refine their activities in a collaborative setting. Work on the project continues during the academic year as teachers further refine their activities and complete their transfer to the web. In the second year of the project, representatives from CESAs joined in, offering additional expertise in academic standards and student assessment methods.

Additionally, curriculum ideas were to be linked to the state's academic standards and, where possible, focus on Wisconsin's resources and environment. The Wisconsin emphasis helps make BioLEARN activities more participatory for students, since activities can include real data collection in local environments. Each teacher-participant was expected to develop two activities to be placed on the BioLEARN web site (activities themselves did not necessarily utilize the web). Once activities were completed, teachers were asked to encourage their colleagues to use the activities as well.

In spring 2000, BioLEARN conducted a self-assessment to determine how effectively program participants communicated with each other during the program's first academic year, the degree to which the program fostered interaction among UW faculty and teachers, and how BioLEARN had enhanced teachers' technology expertise and provided them with learning tools. Overall, responses to the self-assessment survey were very positive, although program co-director Cramer notes that more research into BioLEARN's effectiveness is on the horizon.

In particular, Cramer says that at this point in BioLEARN's evolution, it is time to review its web resources more carefully to examine their value as teaching/learning tools and come up with ways to enhance them, making them as usable and effective as possible for teachers. The question also remains, how can actual learning be evaluated--through examination of test scores, surveying student attitudes, or other means? Cramer also comments that more promotion needs to be done to encourage teachers not affiliated with the project to use its resources.

Similar to the IDEAS site, another web-based resource for Wisconsin teachers, all activities placed on the BioLEARN site have been run through a quality rubric. Developed initially by Jane Cramer and her colleagues in the program and later modified by teacher-participants, the rubric seeks to ensure that BioLEARN's activities are working in sync with state science standards and that they incorporate appropriate suggestions for assessing student learning. BioLEARN materials are currently peer-reviewed by other teachers and university scientists in the program.

In the future, BioLEARN plans to stock its site with even more activities, bringing more teachers into the project and utilizing previous teacher-participants as leaders to assist new participants. The project will step up its efforts to work through the CESAs, teachers' professional societies, and other professional development programs as a way to collaborate with teachers. Project directors are examining the new Teacher Education and Licensing rules to determine how the BioLEARN professional development activities can support restructured teacher education and professional development for practicing educators in Wisconsin.

For more information about BioLEARN, please contact program co-director Jane Harris Cramer.

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