Dr. Arnold Beckman, now 103, never stops inventing new and better ways to do things. Over the course of his career as a scientist and founder of Beckman Instruments, Inc., he has been awarded 14 patents that run the gamut from the well-known (pH meter) to the revolutionary (Spectrophotometer). “There is no satisfactory substitute,” he has famously said, “for excellence.”
In 1996, at age 96, Beckman turned his thoughts to attacking the problem of science education. “He came to me and expressed concern about plummeting science scores,” says Jackie Dorrance, executive director of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, founded in 1977 by Beckman and his wife to support scientific research. “He wanted to do something to reverse the trend” in Orange County, California—his and the foundation’s home.
Dr. Beckman and the foundation’s staff decided to wed an old idea, inquiry-based learning, with a fresh approach to making it work on a scale large enough to serve the majority of elementary school students in Orange County, which has some 280,000 K-6 students overall in public schools. “Inquiry-based learning” is a somewhat broad and vague idea that involves having students do hands-on projects while a teacher guides them with questions or cajoles them into asking their own.
The foundation adapted several existing inquiry-based approaches to design its Beckman@Science program, which consists of 27 units that focus on teaching the basic principles of science through hands-on experimentation and observation. Each Beckman Discovery Box contains enough materials for every child in a class to conduct the prescribed experiments. The foundation also took the unusual step of adding a writing component to the curriculum. Each student maintains a notebook, just as any scientist would, to track observations, questions, and conclusions.
But the foundation knew a curriculum by itself would not suffice. The potential weak link was teachers unacquainted with basic scientific principles. “We learned early on,” Dorrance tells Philanthropy, “that for Beckman@Science to work we would have to succeed in professional development. This is a serious problem with elementary education teachers, who aren’t required to have a scientific background—if they did, most wouldn’t be teaching K-6. Yet they need to know the principles used in the curriculum they’re teaching.”
The Beckman@Science program developed a creative strategy to address this problem. When it launched Beckman@Science, the foundation also opened the Beckman Science Center to train teachers and provide a resource center for the discovery boxes. As of June 2002, over 9,900 teachers at 276 schools (six of them private religious institutions) have been trained in hands-on, inquiry-based science. Most were taught in their districts in two-day seminars by “teacher-leaders” who received their training at the Beckman Science Center.
Teacher-leaders follow a more rigorous course of training and are the linchpin that holds the program together. In addition to receiving tougher training, teacher-leaders are also responsible for recruiting new teachers, working with the community to promote science education, and overseeing continuing education for Beckman@Science teachers. Fifty-seven of these teacher-leaders have also assumed leadership roles in their districts.
None of this has come cheap. Over the past 5 years, the Beckman Foundation has invested some $14.5 million to bring Beckman@Science to Orange County schools. Preliminary studies show promising results. In addition to finding increases in students’ interest in science, the studies suggest students’ standardized test scores are also improving because of the program.
Treseen McCormick, a project director with WestEd, a nonprofit education research group, has been following the program since Beckman hired WestEd to monitor and assess its performance. While completion of the current longitudinal study is needed to provide a definitive answer, WestEd has published an analysis of the first three years. The best evidence Beckman@Science is succeeding comes from students’ scores on the Stanford 9, a nationally recognized achievement exam that measures what K-12 students know.
Though California requires all students to take the Stanford 9, the science part of the exam isn’t required for elementary school students. But one Orange County district has administered the science test to its elementary students since before it adopted the Beckman@Science curriculum, thereby providing baseline scores that make a before-and-after comparison possible. Between 1997-98, the year before the program began, and 1999-2000, students at every elementary grade level that was tested improved their Stanford 9 scores in science and math by between 8 percent and 24 percent—a “significantly improved” jump, according to WestEd’s report. The increase is apparently attributable to the Beckman@Science program, because the district launched no other programs in math and science between 1997 and 2000.
Anecdotal evidence also gives reason to believe the program is working. According to some school and district personnel, students who took part in the Beckman@Science program are “entering high school more prepared, have a better understanding of scientific concepts, are thinking more critically, and are more interested in science,” says the WestEd report.
There are concerns about how the programs will be sustained once Beckman Foundation funding stops completely in 2011. But executive director Dorrance says districts can maintain their programs for considerably less than the costs incurred by the foundation to start it. Dependent upon the size of the district, she estimates it will cost a district between $75,000 and $150,000 a year, on average, to refurbish the Beckman Discovery Boxes, hire a science coordinator, and continue the teachers’ training.
The foundation has also established a solid professional development infrastructure able to replicate itself. Janie Patton, the Beckman@Science Fellow for the past two years, tells Philanthropy she is convinced “the funding will continue” to be found.
That will happen in part because the foundation trains its teachers not only in science education but also in grantwriting. Dorrance notes that, to date, 15 Orange County foundations have made a commitment to funding hands-on, inquiry-based science education.
The program’s success doesn’t surprise Dr. Beckman, who believes all children are naturally curious about science. “The young mind is inquisitive enough that you don’t have to worry about scaring up enthusiasm,” he says, the catch is keeping that interest alive.
Martin Davis is managing editor of Philanthropy.