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On a Roll for Science and Math

by Fred D. Baldwin

Cheered on by her excited classmates, a second-grader gingerly pushes "Humpty Dumpty" (a hard-boiled egg) off the edge of a classroom table. The egg's shell smashes on the hardwood floor. Other children roll eggs off the table into pans containing impact-cushioning substances like sand, popcorn, and breakfast cereal. Some eggs survive intact; many don't. The children take notes on the results of each egg drop and write down their conclusions about how materials absorb energy.

Humpty Dumpty as crash dummy is one example of the storybook-based approach to science learning developed by Loretta Shepherd, a teacher at Jones Fork Elementary School, in Mousie, Kentucky. Another is an experiment in which the children, using a hair dryer for uniform-pressure huffing and puffing, try to blow down index-card houses that they, like the Three Little Pigs, have built to varying design specifications.

Although Shepherd has been teaching for 27 years, she acknowledges that this past school year was the first in which she's emphasized science—not to mention teaching it as a process of asking questions systematically. "To be honest," Shepherd says, "that's something I would have left off. The thought of going into the science lab by myself with all of my students would have scared me."

Shepherd is one of hundreds of teachers across the Appalachian Region who are being encouraged to change their approach to math and science teaching, thanks to a program called the Appalachian Rural Systemic Initiative (ARSI). Now under way in six Appalachian states, ARSI is an ambitious plan to improve the teaching of math and science, sponsored by the National Science Foundation in cooperation with a number of other federal, state, and private partners, including the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

A Strategy for Educational Change

ARSI, launched in 1996, has established 48 "catalyst schools"—including Jones Fork—in Kentucky, Ohio, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. All the schools are in counties with child poverty rates of 30 percent or higher; almost all ARSI counties are classified by ARC as economically distressed.

Broadly speaking, there are three prongs to the ARSI strategy for educational change.

The first is to enhance teacher knowledge and skills for standards-based learning. The key element in this approach is what ARSI calls "teacher partners." Grants to participating schools enable these teachers to spend half their time serving as resources for their colleagues. ARSI supported 21 such teachers during the 1997–98 school year. Support for an additional 39 is expected for the coming school year.

After receiving extensive training from ARSI, teacher partners divide their time among several roles: adapting local curriculums to state and national standards, helping other teachers launch inquiry-based teaching activities, and combing the Internet for instructional tools and materials for use by colleagues. Although they may join temporarily in some team-teaching activities, teacher partners do not take over the science or math classes for other teachers. Shepherd, for example, says that her school's teacher partner, Evelyn Mayer, inspired her to make a successful application for a mini-grant from the Appalachia Educational Laboratory to develop and document her storybook-based approach to teaching science in the early grades. But she doesn't depend on Mayer for day-to-day help.

Conceptually, ARSI encourages "inquiry-based" teaching and learning. That term tends to be associated with "hands-on" activities, but the more basic idea is avoiding formula-first teaching. Instead, teachers guide students through the process of drawing inferences from their own observations and testing them through experiments.

"It's giving students data or an event they can't explain, and then giving them the tools or materials to collect more data to find a solution," says Cindy Witt, a biology teacher and teacher partner at Rockcastle County High School, in Mount Vernon, Kentucky. "It's not telling them everything they'll find out in advance."

Access to Resources

The second prong of the ARSI strategy is to provide sustainable, long-term access to educational resources. To that end, ARSI has established five Resource Collaboratives in partnership with universities and colleges: Marshall University (West Virginia), University of Kentucky, Ohio University, University of Tennessee, and the Clinch Valley College of the University of Virginia. The role of the collaboratives is to coordinate technical assistance to schools and communities, provide access to instructional resources, and promote communications. An overview of their activities may be found at the ARSI Web site (

"We're in a rural, isolated area without resources to support the kind of instruction we'd like to be doing," says Frieda Mullins, principal at Jones Fork, explaining one of the reasons she values ARSI participation. "Our children don't go to museums and factories. But we're trying to prepare them to cope with the world. We don't have much in terms of money. We don't have very much in terms of technology. But we do have people who want to see change."

Jones Fork is one of ten schools in Kentucky and Virginia (nine of which are also ARSI schools) that have been selected to participate in the Annenberg Rural Challenge project, a national effort. The ten schools, known as the Appalachian Rural Education Network, are working to improve rural education on a community basis. As part of the project, each school develops a two-year plan for engaging the community in the work of the school. Jones Fork is also an ARSI catalyst school for Knott County; next fall another school in the county will follow the Jones Fork lead in participating in ARSI.

Taken as a whole, ARSI has had considerable success in bringing resources into the region and to the schools it serves. For example, Microsoft has provided $500,000 worth of software (1,000 individual licenses) to 17 schools, the five Resource Collaboratives, and the Kentucky Science and Technology Council. Support from ARC includes $60,000 for telecommunications efforts in Ohio and Virginia districts and a number of small (typically about $4,000 each) challenge grants for schools in other states.

Developing Leadership

The third prong of the overall ARSI strategy is to develop school and community leadership. The catalyst schools are part of this strategy, but there's no single formula for achieving this goal.

"The regions in which we're working," says Keith Smith, ARSI project director, "have historically not emphasized the importance of education. As a result we have not had the same kind of funding or expectations, and our children have not performed as well as others. And that's borne out by test data for 25 years."

Juanita Faye King, principal at Stanton Elementary School, in Stanton, Kentucky, thinks change comes from building on community assets and culture. This year, all 400 of her school's pupils took lessons in bluegrass music, and 65 of them gave performances as part of the Wise Village Pickers and Singers (named for "Chubby" Wise, a celebrated fiddler from the area). Their teachers are community members, who come in twice a week for after-school lessons in fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and bass fiddle.

A major advantage of the bluegrass music program is that the young players are being evaluated by adults who know the material, love it, and have high performance standards. But this is only one of the Stanton activities. Another involves ecological and archeological studies of the Red River Gorge, a 20-mile-long canyon east of Stanton with deep walls and more natural arches than any other place in the eastern United States. Still another involves re-introducing chestnut trees to nearby forests whose original chestnuts were killed by blight. The children will create a database to track their seedlings, comparing their growth and survival rates with others in Appalachian forests.

"The really serious issue," King says, "is whether we can sustain this momentum. It is hard work. Nothing that we're doing is new. We've known for 50 years that this kind of education is more relevant, but it's easy to regress to what you had [in classrooms] when you were young." The Region can't afford to regress, everyone involved agrees. As Smith puts it: "Even unskilled jobs demand more today. It demands more to be a truck driver or to work in a strip mine. A crane or dragline is a very sophisticated piece of equipment. It's just not the way it was when a dropout could walk into a coal mine and get $100 a day. Those jobs just aren't there anymore. And if it's a problem in other parts of the country, it's an emergency for us."

Test data vary from state to state, but Kentucky (where there are a number of geographically contiguous Appalachian counties) data show a definite gap between Appalachian counties and other counties.

Ronnie Cash, the principal at Rockcastle County High School, quotes one of the school's teachers as saying: "We're not just trying to change a school. We're trying to change a culture."

School officials like Mullins, King, and Cash expend a great deal of effort insisting that expectations be raised. Those efforts preceded ARSI; indeed, one reason the schools served by these principals took early advantage of ARSI was that they were looking for resources and eager to find ways to stimulate their own staffs and communities.

Cash, for example, has encouraged people from business and industry to come in and meet with students, teachers, and parents. The employers explain why they want "people with math who can do things." The message seems to be getting across. According to a ranking system established under the Kentucky Education Reform Act, Rockcastle County High School has moved up in the ranks from "in decline" (lowest) to "rewards" (highest).

Will all this change really pay off for the Region in increased numbers of scientists, engineers, and science-literate citizens? The results won't be in for years, but there are already some promising indicators.

"Four years ago," says Cash, "we didn't teach physics because we couldn't get enough kids to take the class. We needed ten kids and couldn't get them. This year we have 66 kids taking physics and 110 in chemistry."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.