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UGA gets grant for public school 'science of food'

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

With Georgia public schools struggling to meet the global demand for science education, the University of Georgia has secured a $1.4 million National Science Foundation grant to create "The Science Behind Our Food" for classroom teachers.

"Much has been written in recent years about the status of science teaching in U.S. public schools," said David Knauft, associate dean for instruction for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "That's the basis for this program."

Results from the 2000 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education showed that when asked about their qualifications to teach plant biology, only 46 percent of teachers reported they were very well qualified. Even fewer reported being very well qualified to teach environmental and resource issues.

"When asked about recent course work in the sciences, only 22 percent of middle school teachers and 37 percent of high school teachers reported having taken a course in the previous three years," Knauft said.

TSBOF goal

"Our goal in 'The Science Behind Our Food' is to address these findings directly through a collaborative effort of the CAES and UGA's College of Education," Knauft said. "The project will provide resources and training for middle and high school science teachers to provide inquiry-based instruction for their students."

The researchers also hope to:

  • Establish partnerships that link public school science teachers and NSF graduate teaching fellows (GTFs) to improve science teaching.
  • Create a community where teachers serve as expert resources to GTFs and UGA faculty on instruction-related issues.
  • Use the community to identify science concepts that students find hard to grasp or inaccessible.
  • Bring science-related resources centered on these concepts to public schools in forms easy for teachers to use. These would include student-run experiments, Weekend Discovery kits that students take home, research facility tours, ask-a-scientist questions-and-answers through videoconferencing, up-to-date news items and other related activities customized to the needs of individual teachers.
  • Provide a Web-based linkage to experts, activities, curriculum alignment, lessons and reference information.

State-of-the-art support

"This program gives teachers access to state-of-the art information and resources," said Steve Oliver, associate professor of science education and one of four co-principal investigators. "Teachers need up-to-date information. And if you haven't had a biology course recently, things have changed. There's no way anybody can keep up with biology."

Oliver said the program also aims to change what people think of the CAES. "A lot of people think of a plow," Oliver said. "But state-of-the-art science being done in the CAES is just as high-level ... as what's being done anyplace.

"They have people sequencing the genome of the peanut. They've got the first cloned cow (from a carcass)," he said. "We've got a high level of research in a lot of those areas going on. So we want to change people's opinion about that."

Starts with fellows

The program will be started through GTFs' work with public school science teachers as liaisons, technologists, resource providers and co-teachers. A startup summer institute, with teachers, GTFs and UGA faculty members, will develop programs to assess the science learning objectives that are hardest for students to master or for teachers to get across with available resources.

Teachers and GTFs will create real-world demonstrations and experiments to provide teachers more knowledge and students real-world activities related to the hard-to-learn concepts.

The activities will draw on research in nutrition, biochemistry, genetics, engineering, biology, physiology and other disciplines within the CAES.

"We also want to inform people about the science that's involved in food," Oliver said. "We titled this 'The Science Behind Our Food' because we can use food-related examples to teach biology."

"It's an important educational issue," he said. "Kids don't know where meat comes from. A lot of school children have no idea of the link between the cows and hamburgers. That's a link we need to make. People need to know that."

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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