Lehigh University
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Toyota USA Foundation gives green to support environmental education

Lehigh University has received a grant from the Toyota USA Foundation to promote environmental literacy in the nation’s middle schools. The funds will be used to create professional development materials for teachers, as well as to update science curriculum using a package of innovative instructional technologies.

Lehigh’s WELIM initiative—Web-enhanced Environmental Literacy and Inquiry Modules—is a collaborative effort between its College of Education and the university’s Environmental Initiative. The multi-year study will bring together faculty and doctoral candidates spanning the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education.

The Environmental Initiative is a multidisciplinary effort that unites a full spectrum of scientists, engineers, social scientists and educators to respond to and prepare students for the environmental problems facing modern and future societies.

WELIM aims to bridge science education with new and innovative approaches to curriculum development.

“The Toyota USA Foundation is proud to support the WELIM initiative,” said Patricia Pineda, Toyota's Group Vice President, National Philanthropy and the Toyota USA Foundation. “Education has always been a priority for us, and environmental literacy is critical for the next generation of leaders. WELIM will teach environmental science in a comprehensive and innovative way."

What’s at stake

The 2005 National Academies report, Rising above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future , helped draw attention to a critical lack of focus on science education in America. Subsequent reports have prompted similar calls to action.

In order to remain globally competitive, the 2005 report calls for 16.5 percent increase in the number of American students taking advanced placement (AP) or international baccalaureate (IB) level mathematics or science exams by 2010, as well as aggressive recruitment and training program for the nation’s 250,000 secondary science and math teachers.

The WELIM initiative is a pilot program that directly addresses both concerns simultaneously using GIT. The technologies, which range from handheld GPS systems to Web satellite imagery, help students explore geography and collect data while becoming more familiar with their environment.

The materials will extend beyond the comfort of their own backyards. In one possible project, for example, students may study the different set of energy mixes found throughout the country: the reliance of nuclear energy in Chicago, coal resources in Philadelphia, and hydro energy in Phoenix and the southwest.

All materials will closely align with the National Science Education Standards and will chart a course for a multi-disciplinary—and more contemporary—science curriculum.

Renewed interest in renewable energies

The program and its reliance on geospatial information technologies (GIT) will allow students to closely analyze information and data on three core topics: energy, climate change and the impact of human activity on the environment. Issues such as urban and suburban sprawl, water resource usage, pollution and ecosystem management will be included in the curriculum.

“We’ve gone through years—almost a full generation—without significantly changing our country’s science curriculum to reflect the global issues our society is facing,” says Alec Bodzin, associate professor of teaching, learning and technology with Lehigh’s College of Education and the lead principal investigator (PI) of the grant.

“There’s definitely a renewed interest in energy conservation. The challenge is incorporating these topics into our curriculum in a timely and relevant manner, while giving teachers the tools and resources in order to that effectively,” he added.

Dork Sahagian and David Anatsasio, both professors of earth and environmental sciences with Lehigh’s College of Arts and Sciences, are grant co-PIs. The grant will also support three doctoral candidates: Tamara Peffer and Violet Kulo from the College of Education, and Matthew Bennett from Lehigh’s earth and environmental sciences program.

“There have been many obstacles preventing this country’s science and environmental curricula to advance in a competitive manner,” says Sahagian, who also serves as director of Lehigh’s Environmental Initiative. He argues that science education is hampered by a lack of resources, effective teacher training modules and technology accessibility.

“With a new emphasis on science proficiency and environmental literacy, our WELIM project can really help transform science instruction and shape how we approach these issues in just a few years,” he says.

The program will be first piloted by Nitschmann and Broughal Middle Schools in Bethlehem, Pa., the latter of which is a NASA Explorer School.

The Toyota USA Foundation is a $100 million charitable endowment created to support education programs serving kindergarten through 12th-grade students and their teachers in the United States, with an emphasis on mathematics, science and environmental science.

--Tom Yencho


Posted on Tuesday, August 26, 2008

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