Discovery Files

Customizing Science Instruction With Digital Libraries

Animations, images and interactive media help engage Denver students in earth science

Teachers in large urban school districts face major instructional challenges to meet the different needs of increasingly diverse learners in their classrooms. Adding to this challenge is identifying online digital resources that are tested and shown to help enrich the curriculum and learning experience within their environment. In Denver Public Schools, teachers have a new tool available for finding and using digital images and animations to engage students in earth science.

The Curriculum Customization Service (CCS) is an integrated platform for middle and high school science teachers to access interactive media resources, customize curriculum and share new customized tools/resources with other educators in the teachers' school districts. Preliminary results from an extensive field trial this year, focusing on teacher use, attitudes and beliefs and student learning suggest that the service offers a promising and scalable model for embedding educational digital libraries into teaching practices and planning.

The service was created by Digital Learning Sciences, a joint center of the Institute of Cognitive Science at CU-Boulder and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). "Our vision was to create a teacher-friendly software tool that would help teachers to be more effective in their curriculum planning and in classroom instruction," said CU-Boulder Associate Professor Tamara Sumner, the executive director of Digital Learning Sciences.

The service brings together tools, services and products from a variety of sources, developed in part with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The technical architecture of the CCS is built on EduPak tools and services, which were originally developed in conjunction with the National Science Digital Library (NSDL). The integrated digital library resources are from the Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE), combined with an inquiry-based curriculum component developed by the American Geological Institute. In partnership with an advisory board of teachers from the Denver Public School (DPS) district, the CCS application was developed using a participatory design process. The tool was released in a field trial to all the 124 middle and high school science teachers beginning in the 2009-2010 academic year. DPS is a large urban school district, with approximately 75,000 students, of which 77 percent represent minority groups. "The long-term goal in this particular project is to give teachers the tools they need to be effective in engaging students in science. Teaching science is hard to begin with, and when you throw in the added complexity of having such a large range of knowledge, skills and abilities in the classroom, you absolutely have to think about how you customize your instruction to really energize all of your students," says Sumner.

The CCS is designed to promote purposeful planning and to provide the option to save and share resources, including interactive digital library resources. The program provides a personal workspace and opportunities to customize selected materials to address key concepts for teachers. Says Tiffany Boody, a DPS science teacher, "It [the CCS] is a space for me to save my materials on that won't be erased ... It's just a centralized location where I can go to find that extra material that I know is going to be, nine times out of ten, useful for me. It actually has cut down on [my] random searching on the Internet".

By selecting relevant resources and saving to "Shared Stuff" within the application, a professional learning community is created to share resources and develop discussions that might not otherwise occur, due to schedules and physical proximities. "An unintended outcome of the project is the creation of a virtual professional learning community," said Patty Kincaid, secondary science coordinator for DPS. "As a result, resources from the digital libraries were tagged and shared so other district teachers could benefit from the planning and expertise from others' efforts, input and feedback."

DPS teachers have used the customization service in a variety of ways, Sumner said. One of the most popular features is the collection of animations, because these visualizations make complicated Earth science topics more understandable to kids. "We picked Earth science in part because the Digital Library for Earth System Education is operated and curated here [in Boulder, Colorado] at the National Center for Atmospheric Research library, and we knew it was filled with great middle and high school content that was ready to go," Sumner said.

Jeff Miller, a member of the DPS teacher advisory board explains the impact of the CCS on students within his classroom: "What I found was that interacting with visuals prompted students to better comprehend a more complex writing style--it kept them more engaged rather than skipping over the challenging sections or giving up". He adds that these resources "enabled my students to ask more analytical, less knowledge-based questions of each other, the lab text and myself."

Regarding her students' interactions with the digital resources, Tiffany Boody commented, "I think that since students are visual learners, they're hands-on learners, they're growing up in this technological age ... Seeing the animations ... really drives home the idea or the topic ... I ask them if it does help them [to see graphic representations] ... if whatever they just viewed made the material make more sense, and oftentimes, they [say] ‘Wow ... That totally made sense ... Can we see it again?' I think they benefit from it a lot, and they're vocal about it. They love it."

The success of this project identifies DPS as an educational leader incorporating digital teaching and learning with support from UCAR and CU. It also promotes the use of NSDL beyond its traditional community--providing exposure to new audiences and innovative opportunities for resource usage.

In addition, it illustrates the substantial potential for future research opportunities, as well as expansion into other content areas and school districts. At the time of this publication, two other Colorado school districts, as well as the Davis school district in Utah, were planning to integrate the CCS into their science curriculum .

"One of the big goals in K-12 is to give every student who graduates a solid science education so they at least have the option of moving on to college," Sumner said. "As we strengthen high school graduation requirements, we need to give teachers the tools they need to actually make that possible. Hopefully, this service will be a useful tool for many teachers."

-- Tamara Sumner, CU-Boulder Associate Professor and executive director of Digital Learning Sciences