an e-newsletter for students and alumni of saint michael's biology department

It's Elementary:
Students create a new worldwide education resource
By Mark Tarnacki




Note: This story originally appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of the Saint Michael's College Magazine.
  Elementary students have fun with science.
In biology professor Declan McCabe’s new “Biology in Elementary Schools” course, Saint Michael’s education majors design imaginative hands-on science lessons, then visit have local grade school children try them out.

McCabe says “a light bulb went off” last year as he thought about two things: the time he spends doing science demonstration for Burlington-area schoolchildren and the several courses he teaches for non-science majors. Seeing a natural nexus and opportunity for aspiring teachers, he wrote a course proposal that the education department liked.

“This is a way our education majors can get their science lab requirement, and in the end, have something they can put in their teaching portfolios,” he said.

This past spring, McCabe’s two sections of his Biology for Educators class contained 36 aspiring teachers (all female). “We made it clear we would only accept education majors in the course,” he said. “Since they’re dedicated to the idea of being teachers, we end up with better quality teaching experiences since these people are serious. For a lesson to be deemed road-worthy, he said, “there has to be some hypothesis testing and they have to translate the process for little kids.”

“The main consideration is that the lessons relate to the state science standards,” he said. “Specifically, we ask the hosting teacher to give us some learning objectives and we try to teach those.” The Saint Michael’s students then come up with ideas.


View the wiki sites describing lessons designed and tested by
Saint Michael’s students
in Professor McCabe’s class:

Biology In Elementary Schools >>  
Opening Our Minds >>  

Soon children in Africa, South America or Asia may be trying the same lessons Saint Michael’s education students are developing. The class has developed a “wiki” Web site to share their ideas with teachers around the world for free, placing the college in the forefront of a promising new teaching-technology initiative.

A wiki is a Web site that is generally editable by anyone with a computer, a web browser, and an internet connection. (“Wiki” is a shortened form of “wiki-wiki,” the Hawaiian word for quick.) Wikis use a quick and easy syntax to allow users to apply formatting to text and create links between pages. This simplicity means that authors don’t need to learn complex programming codes to create web content. The main strength of a wiki is that it gives people the ability to work collaboratively on the same document.

The course is using WikiEducator, a community resource supported by the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) for the development of free educational content. COL is an intergovernmental organization created by Commonwealth Heads of Government to encourage the development and sharing of open learning and distance education knowledge, resources and technologies.

Currently, anything appearing on COL’s site under the heading “basic biology” was put together by Saint Michael’s students. (See link at end of article). Each group of three students from the class came up with three lessons for the semester, then taught each one out in the field, modifying it based on reflection and sometimes trying the reworked version again with a different grade if time permitted.

After presenting science lessons one week in April to two Burlington elementary schools, both sections of McCabe’s class gathered in a crowded Cheray science room, a laptop computer before each student, as they processed their experiences by groups. After everybody had enough time to update their wiki sites with reflections from the recent school visits, McCabe placed a conference call to Wayne MacKintosh in Vancouver in Canada.

MacKintosh is an educator who runs the COL wiki site. Students and McCabe took turns asking him about the site and telling about their experiences. The amiable MacKintosh described the big challenges his organization faces in developing and expanding the world’s access to technology for education.

Wiki Educator has become a valuable tool to develop content and smart ways to use computers in the developing world particularly, he said, telling the group that he felt the lessons posted by Saint Michel’s students will be very usable and adaptable around the world. “This is the power and wonder of the wiki” he said. McCabe explained to him how well what he is doing fits with the mission of Saint Michael’s with its emphasis on serving others.

MacKintosh said the project was a “win-win project” since the Saint Michael’s classes developed real content that can be used for the wiki site while at the same time giving valuable experience to the student-teachers in lesson planning.

“We may be the biggest wiki on the planet – it’s something you can tell your grandkids,” he said.


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