The North Cascades and Olympic Science Partnership (NCOSP) was formed as an ambitious collaboration among 28 predominantly rural Washington school districts, Everett, Whatcom and Skagit Valley Community Colleges, Northwest Indian College and Western Washington University, two Washington State Educational Service Districts, Washington State MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement), and Washington State LASER (Leadership and Assistance for Science Education Reform) to improve science teaching and learning in both K-12 and higher education. The partnership was conceived to provide transformative learning experiences for all partners—teachers, faculty, and administrators—and build sustainable capacity for education reform.
The typical components of systemic reform—alignment of curriculum materials, assessment systems, teacher education requirements, initial and continuing teacher licensure requirements, and other system components—are necessary but not sufficient to produce lasting improvement of science learning. NCOSP proposed to go beyond these structural components and take on the challenge of changing fundamental ideas about subject matter, teaching, and learning, and promote "learning through thinking." The intent was to create a positive achievement spiral where improved teaching and learning in both K-12 and higher education results in ever-increasing science competencies for all students and teachers. Research and evaluation were integrated into partnership activities so that in addition to providing needed programs for all stakeholders, the partnership would generate new knowledge about effective practices and generate evidence of its impact on student learning and teacher practice.
Central to the work of the North Cascades and Olympic Science Partnership is the belief that to make science accessible to all learners, K-12 teachers need a strong understanding of the subject matter, an appreciation for how students learn, and a repertoire of appropriate instructional strategies to engage students' prior ideas and build more accurate understanding of science. NCOSP created a sequential series of three 80-hour residential Summer Academies to improve content knowledge and reinforce conceptual, constructivist science teaching strategies among participating teachers. Each Academy included an approximately 40-hour Content Immersion experience that explored a small number of scientific topics to achieve a deep level of conceptual understanding. The topics in the immersion were based on national science standards and benchmarks so they were relevant to content that teachers teach, but they were not the actual topics taught, nor were they tied directly to existing instructional materials. The content of the immersion was at a level beyond what students were expected to know and beyond what most teachers knew prior to the experiences.
In addition to engaging the K-12 teachers with subject-specific content, the Summer Academy sessions introduced "How People Learn" (National Academies Press, 1999) as a unifying framework for learning and modeled this framework in the context of the immersions. Focused discussions of instructional strategies consistent with that framework were conducted periodically, sometimes supplemented with video recordings of naïve student conceptions of the content under consideration. Additional experiences incorporated into the Summer Academies provided support for implementing the instructional approaches modeled and discussed in the Academy in the context of the K-12 classroom. These experiences tied to learning theory and content-specific pedagogy combined to fill approximately 25-30 hours of each two-week program. Coupled with the immersions, these sessions developed the knowledge and skills important for effective instruction, while also addressing values and beliefs about teaching and learning that create the will to change. From 2004-2006, approximately 150 teachers from 28 different school districts, and 25 disciplinary science faculty from five institutions of higher education, participated in the three-year Teacher Summer Academy sequence. In 2008, a new cohort of nearly 200 teachers from the same partner districts began a modified Summer Academy sequence, including all of the previously described components.
The primary motivation for NCOSP is improving the preparation of future teachers of science. We envisioned that the grant would allow us to completely revamp our science teaching methods courses and would help us get the experience to revise our content courses to reflect the latest research on teaching and learning. From the start, it was our intent to implement a yearlong science content course sequence for future elementary teachers. The identical sequence would be taught in each partner institution, the three community colleges, the Northwest Indian College, and Western so that those students transferring to Western would have a common content experience. This is about one-half of the future elementary teachers.
The scientists and science educators engaged in a series of formal activities designed to help us learn from the latest research and the wisdom of our partner Teacher Leaders and Teachers on Special Assignment. Participation as facilitators and eventually creators of the content immersion sessions during the Summer Academies provided the opportunity for the faculty to put their new learning into practice. With these new knowledge and skills, the faculty developed and implemented the year-long science content course sequence for future elementary teachers, created a new introduction to science education course for secondary students, and completely revised both the elementary and secondary science teaching methods courses (see learning commentaries written by students in the program).
A critical element of all these activities is the careful collection of data by the evaluation team that has provided feedback that has been used to continuously improve our materials and instruction. We are able to show that our elementary preservice teachers are learning more and retaining what they have learned (see Figure 1). We have also established a reputation among the schools where our beginning practicum teachers are serving as professional development models of science teaching for their mentor teachers which is having a positive impact on the schools. Evaluation of faculty instruction has shown that we are constantly improving as effective teachers ourselves. Other institutions, for example the University of Texas at Austin, and California State University Chico, have adopted our materials in their teacher preparation programs.
The North Cascades and Olympic Science Partnership (NCOSP) will conclude its NSF-funded period with many institutionalized components that will have a lasting and positive impact on science education (see Figure 2). NCOSP has developed a strong and active network of teachers, administrators, and disciplinary science faculty firmly grounded in a shared vision for effective science teaching and learning. Faculty and administrators in both the higher education and K12 institutions remain deeply committed to the goals and vision of NCOSP and the opportunities to collaborate, think, and learn together that the partnership creates. With each passing year, discussions among K12 teachers and higher education disciplinary science faculty reveal a greater focus on essential elements of learning and teaching, and observations provide evidence of those elements being incorporated into their regular classroom practice. The products created by NCOSP are being used with increasing frequency and proficiency to support instructional improvements K-16. There is growing evidence that student learning is increasing in both the undergraduate courses and the K12 classrooms. Significantly, while students of all demographic groups are benefiting, Hispanic students, students of poverty, special education students, and students with limited math proficiency are making the greatest gains.
As the funded period comes to a close, all NCOSP partners are optimistic about the potential to effect lasting, school-wide change. The original K12 partners are prepared to identify, access, and apply the varied resources within the partnership to achieve long-term gains for every student. Now, there is also a powerful infrastructure of institutions, agencies, and organizations ready to disseminate successful NCOSP products and models statewide that can help fulfill the promise of success for every student that NCOSP has demonstrated is possible.
Analysis of major NCOSP accomplishments described in a recent evaluation report reveal these broad areas of impact:
The tools and other resources that NCOSP developed have been very valuable in our work and do indeed have much to offer others. That said, an important finding from our work—and many others'—is that the transfer of work from one setting to another or from one context to another is difficult. So the message for others creating learning partnerships is that you can learn from us—but there are no short cuts to get results. By that, we mean yes, borrow our tools, ideas, and any other resources that could be useful, but at the same time always remember that the tools won’t do the work by themselves. They can help save the time we took to develop them, but there is no way to speed up the time needed to change thinking and cultures. Learning resulted from the thinking and discourse prompted by engaging with the NCOSP products and tools, not just by reproducing them and providing every teacher or faculty a copy and telling them to "do this."
A couple of lessons that we learned have general application. First, the time we took at the onset of the partnership to create—and internalize—the partnership’s principles was well spent. Key ideas like: every member of the partnership has something to contribute and something to learn, are critical. Our partnership took the time to make those ideas explicit, clarify what it really looks like to live up to those ideas, and have ongoing dialogue about how well the partnership is living up to those principles. The intentionality put meaning behind these “norms” that are often offered superficially, rather than becoming deeply held values and beliefs that truly guide interactions and working processes. Creating a level playing field—and thereby avoiding the usual hierarchical approach of higher education “fixing” K-12 (an idea that never works) took a couple of years of careful work, but it allowed us to make real progress at all levels.
Another important lesson was to remain true to a "less is more" approach. Working on a small number of key components over time helped us stay focused. For example, we broke the elements of effective instruction down to three key findings based on "How People Learn." We broke the requirements for improving student achievement down to three elements, effective instruction, peer collaboration, and attention to individual student success. Each of these elements can be unpacked into many components such as the critical role the role of building leadership, training, and data to support collaboration. We did that unpacking slowly and methodically based on readiness to benefit over a five year period, giving participants ample time to learn, practice, and reflect on these new ideas in order for new habits, values and beliefs to form and last.
The primary value of NCOSP as a model is probably the access to our thinking and interactions as we planned, implemented, evaluated, learned, and revised actions focused on our small number of important and well-defined goals. It is our hope to write more about that process to make our working model visible to others pursuing this path. The habits of mind used to operate a learning partnership so that the program itself remains dynamic and responsive to its participants and outcomes are what can transcend our specific program and inform others.