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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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VISTA: Vertical Integration of Science and Technology in Alabama


This article was prepared by Martin G. Bakker, Jim Gleason, Sherry Nichols, Aaron Kuntz, Cheryl Sundberg, Laura Busenlehner, Nitin Chopra, Ria Evans and Paige Spencer.

Over the three months of the northern summer, the University of Alabama (UA) has piloted a program designed to offer professional development to school science teachers, and to stimulate students' interest in the subject. The pilot is a way to provide learning resources for schools in one of the USA's poorest states, and for UA staff it is also a step towards their long-term goal of developing close, ongoing links with schools.

The pilot program is called VISTA: Vertical Integration of Science and Technology in Alabama. Through VISTA four staff in the university's science, technology and mathematics (STEM) faculty are working with three teachers at an area high school, and three graduate students, to develop science experiments that can ultimately be implemented in high schools across the state.

The pilot also contributes to Alabama's state-wide program to deliver science experiments and teacher professional development in science across the K–12 levels. This program, known as the Alabama Math Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI), currently serves about 40% of Alabama schools.

Aims of the VISTA pilot

Science experiments provided through VISTA are designed to engage students by giving them vivid and hands-on experiences. For example, in one experiment students work with the protein luciferase that glows when they expose it to ultraviolent light. VISTA's inquiry-based approach to experiments also means that students can develop their own hypotheses and then test them relatively independently of the teacher.

In a climate that emphasises high graduation rates, the program offers a way for schools to challenge their top students, whose needs might otherwise be overlooked. This is a natural fit for STEM faculty who are interested in enriching the school experience of the students most likely to pursue science at tertiary level.

Through VISTA secondary teachers can learn new and innovative scientific techniques that can help them to understand and deliver material in the state curriculum. The UA staff can place the curriculum in an up-to-date context for teachers, and it is hoped that they can also act as motivators and role models.

At the same time the tertiary faculty can learn from secondary school staff how to present materials effectively to high school classes, how to link laboratory experiments with the Alabama Course of Study, and how to communicate effectively with teachers and students. The university faculty can also acquire more general learning about the high school environment and curriculum. Further, if these experiments are also suitable, even in a modified form, as introductory material for undergraduate students then the university also benefits.

Addressing the barriers to collaboration with schools

VISTA faces a number of entrenched obstacles to collaborative partnerships between secondary and tertiary educators in Alabama. School STEM staff have traditionally been reluctant to take up overtures for cooperation with the university, a reticence often reflected in local school systems' policies and procedures that inhibit joint work. The university STEM faculty is often seen by school teachers and administrators as out of touch with the 'real' world of school education, in which classroom focus is only on the content of high-stakes tests mandated at the federal and state levels. Teachers and school administrators are also extremely busy and often feel that they cannot spare the time and energy to make effective use of the UA faculty.

There are further barriers beyond the schools themselves. At university level, tenure, promotion and funding depend more on research and teaching than on projects such as VISTA, which is categorised as a 'service' rather than as research. To receive US Government research funding, projects need to show that they are sustainable when the funding ends. Such sustainability requires training of a new STEM faculty and teachers, and ongoing access to necessary resources. It also requires significant institutionalisation of the effort to preserve what has been developed and learned, alongside the flexibility to adapt to changes within UA or the collaborating schools.

These problems have been minimised by VISTA's focus on the preparation of school science experiments, since they have been designed to meet schools' existing curriculum objectives. From the point of view of UA's STEM faculty, developing cutting edge science experiments is well within the comfort zone and lets them utilise their depth of content knowledge without the need for further, time-consuming training.

Results so far

Early evaluation of VISTA activities is based on observations and a survey of the tertiary science faculty, secondary science teachers and graduate students participating in the pilot.

Analysis of this initial data indicates that the pilot has met the UA's goals of improving communication on both the university and K–12 sides of the relationship. The participating tertiary faculty report that they have gained more understanding of how to integrate science activities into the secondary classroom, while secondary teachers have come to appreciate the multiple steps involved in developing innovative science activities within the lab. However, all participants also noted the extent of the challenge ahead, in terms of extending the VISTA program to teachers and administrators outside the program, and maintaining the momentum of the VISTA project beyond the initial summer activities. Efforts are on-going to strengthen and broaden the relationships developed over the last few months.

Building for the future

It is anticipated that by working with teachers on topics that are of value to them, the teachers will become advocates for the program with their principals and school district superintendents. This will enable the project to assist in revising our local school systems' policies and procedures to allow easier UA/teacher collaboration. It also produced the extra benefit that working together on a specific project provided an environment for the teachers and STEM faculty to identify and develop opportunities for further collaboration. This is laying the groundwork for more varied and longer term projects.

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Science teaching
Science literacy
United States of America (USA)