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Polytechnic Elementary aims to reform K-12 education

June 22, 2009

Editor's Note: Driven by university innovation, Polytechnic Elementary School opened its doors in 2008 to students in kindergarden through sixth grade, and launched what would become a promising partnership between Arizona State University and University Public Schools Inc. With access to cutting-edge education research and university faculty who can implement their findings in the classroom, Polytechnic Elementary has taken a definitive step in the country’s mission to reform education.

The feature article is from a two-part series that appeared in ASU Insight that examines the nonprofit charter school’s inaugural year and how it is working to advance the university’s design aspiration of social embeddedness.

The university goes back to school

Matthew Isom, a senior lecturer in the Chemistry, Physics and Applied Mathematics program at ASU, regularly teaches mathematics to university students, as well as fifth- and sixth-graders as part of a collaboration between Arizona State University and University Public Schools Inc. that he calls “almost unbelievable.”

Polytechnic Elementary School opened its doors last August to more than 200 children. The teachers inside were armed with project-based learning and were ready to try something new. Perhaps most important of all, the teachers had access to world-class education researchers: ASU professors.

Debra Gomez, director of Centers for Educational Innovation for University Public Schools, says the school blossomed from ASU President Michael Crow’s vision of social embeddedness.

“What better way to be embedded in the community than through the school system?” Gomez asks. “I think we’ve come from that vision, that concept, that idea of implementation in a very short time.”

With professors involved in every stage – from planning to teaching the material – Polytechnic Elementary has truly become a laboratory for educational innovation.

Gomez says having the ASU affiliation is creating a learning environment where anything is possible.

Education renovation

Isom and his colleagues jumped at the chance to revamp elementary math education.

He met with leaders of University Public Schools Inc. last year to develop a “relevant math” curriculum for the fifth- and sixth-grade class at Polytechnic Elementary.

“There is a systemic problem with math curriculum,” he says. “We all looked at it as an opportunity to do something different. We knew we were going to get teachers who would do what we dreamed of.”

So he started planning a math curriculum he previously thought could never be implemented – a curriculum that would create a generation of math lovers and children who understand the “why” behind a formula.

Now, Isom witnesses his students solving problems using their own formulas and generating their own ideas.

The lessons rely upon student involvement and participation. Isom intended for the students to take ownership of their education and develop confidence with their mathematical knowledge.

“We’re trying to create problem-solvers,” Isom says. “The goal is to get them to transfer knowledge from a safe environment to an unknown environment.”

Granting a scientific experience

Once a week, David Meltzer, an associate professor in the College of Teacher Education and Leadership, gathers a small group of inquiring minds in his Science Wizards club at Polytechnic. Meltzer brings one of his ASU students to help facilitate interactive physical science activities in the fifth- and sixth-grade classroom.

Meltzer says the response has been astounding.

“It’s been an incredible experience,” he says. “We’re doing some really special things – activities we’ve done with college students that are really quite challenging.”

He was so impressed, in fact, that he is drafting a research project to discover the best practices to teach elementary science. He hopes to transform Science Wizards into a weekly class where he can document his findings. The project would examine how children respond to science activities and how to best facilitate their learning.

“There is a lot of research on teaching science at a college level, such as the best way to teach the concepts of velocity and acceleration,” he says. “But a lot of this research has not been tried with younger kids. I’m trying to adapt the activities that have been so successful with college students for elementary students.”

With careful documentation, Meltzer will teach a lesson on voltage and batteries. Depending on how the students handle the activity – through difficulties and successes – Meltzer will be able to help modify current teaching practices.

“Our goal is to see what kind of modifications and adaptations are needed while teaching science to elementary school students,” he says.

Meltzer will then be able to relate this information back to his ASU students in the College of Teacher Education and Leadership, where he specializes in physical sciences.

Teaching the teachers

Isom’s involvement didn’t stop after he designed the math curriculum.

Gomez says Isom is always a week ahead of the teachers in the textbook, ready to answer questions on the upcoming concepts. He also regularly makes visits to the classroom to teach students and assist the fifth- and sixth-grade math teacher, Steve MacClelland.

“Isom is a teacher professor himself who utilizes the same strategies that our teachers do,” Gomez says. “He is one of those hands-on professors, not just your typical lecturer.”

Through Polytechnic, Isom is able to create change in a world he was previously unable to reach.

“I put research into practice, and I was just trying to expand that through [MacClelland],” he says.

To help foster that expansion, Isom says he is a “friendly, willing tutor” for MacClelland. The teacher would often come to Isom with questions regarding the application of concepts.

“The program requires students to do a lot of thinking and questioning, which means the teacher needs to understand the conceptual ideas,” he says.

MacClelland and Isom would meet weekly to address lessons with which MacClelland was having difficulties. Sometimes he wasn’t sure what the kids were supposed to take away from an activity. As he became the student, he learned from Isom through a series of open-ended, thought-provoking questions.

“He would just ask me the questions that would guide my thinking through a funnel,” MacClelland says. “All of a sudden there was an obvious answer in front of me. I would teach the lesson the exact same way he had taught me the night before.”

“I feel like the first 10 years of teaching were nothing, and now I’m this wizard of a math teacher,” MacClelland says. “Before, I thought this was just math.”

The $100 Question

The school day has just begun, and 6-year-old Madison Officer couldn’t be more excited.

Standing next to a Macintosh MacBook laptop, Madison works with her classmates to research information about the weather cycle for their next school project. Tomorrow, she may start working on a diorama of the weather cycle or produce a podcast showcasing her new knowledge.

“At this school we learn more,” she says. “It’s kind of different.”

Through the use of project-based learning and technology, Polytechnic Elementary fosters an innovative educational environment that embraces new ways to teach children.

Gomez says the emphasis on project-based learning has one goal: teaching kids to think critically. Gomez says this mindset has been underused in her 20-year career as an educator.

“That is what we want kids to learn: how to think and solve problems,” Gomez says.

Third- and fourth-grade teacher Lisa Ghormley says project-based learning is giving her students problem-solving skills that prepare them for higher education.

Instead of giving her students a math worksheet, Ghormley passes out grocery advertisements.

“You have $100 – who can buy the most with it?” she asks her students.

The exercise caters to students at any math level by urging them to use either addition or multiplication to solve the problem. But by giving them an open-ended question, the students can explore the many types of solutions.

“There’s not just one answer, and that’s the biggest thing these kids are getting out of it,” Ghormley says. “They’re going to know that they can solve a problem. They can go into it and figure it out, and I think that’s been lost with a lot of kids. They don’t think out of the box. They only see it (one) way, instead of seeing all of the options.”

Buying into their education

At Polytechnic, new Mac laptops scatter the classrooms, propped open on the desks of kindergarteners and sixth-graders alike.

There are computers for one out of every two children in the school, and Donna Bullock, the school’s principal, says this helps the children “buy into” their own education.

“If technology can get the kids excited like that, you know, why not?” she says. “It is a fabulous tool and they are learning from it, and probably not even realizing exactly how much they are learning.”

All of the grades have integrated technology into the learning, whether it is through researching, creating an iMovie or submitting assignments via the Internet.

Teacher Jeff Neilsen says at first he was unsure whether the students would grasp the technology.

“To see these fifth- and sixth-graders just take hold of technology, you wonder, ‘Can they handle that?’ ” he says. “Well, right, now they’re teaching us how to do podcasts and (telling us), ‘You can make it so much better, Mr. Neilsen, just add this music.’ So it’s just a digital age, and it’s second nature to them.”

Third- and fourth-grade teacher Patty Cruz says her students are making an “infomercial” about science careers. The class will research careers and universities with the laptops, then write a research report and create a script. The finished product? An iMovie informercial, created solely by third- and fourth-graders.

“It’s taking them through that whole process,” Cruz says. “They’re going to make a movie, a commercial with their friends about the content. So, it’s just fun, you know?” she says. “And that’s been a great thing. Technology is on all fronts. It really engages the kids.”

Active participants

At Polytechnic, a quiet classroom is uncommon. Teachers do not stand in front of rows of silent, antsy children and read from a textbook. Here, children participate in their own learning. And it shows, Bullock says.

“The kids really love that there is so much hands-on learning going on,” Bullock says. “They are rarely just sitting at their desks and listening to a teacher.”

Instead, kids are working together in teams, researching topics and delving into projects.

“Sometimes you go down our hall and there are just kids all over the hallways with their laptops doing podcasts and working together on projects,” she says.

In this style of learning, the students are involved in every step, and making choices in their education. Recently, the fifth- and sixth-grade class studied the Renaissance, and each student chose to specialize in anatomy, music, simple machines or theater.

Sixth-grader Sophia Fishman chose music and learned to play guitar from teacher Jeff Neilsen. Fishman appreciates this unique style of learning.

“We don’t just take notes out of books,” she says.

Neilsen says this hands-on approach is creating an early love for learning.

“If we say, ‘Look, as long as you’re engaged, you want to be here and you’re having fun learning’ – and we can create that love of learning – then that’s going to transfer over when they get to middle school and high school, when it really counts,” he says.

Giving students choices drives them to take ownership of their work, he adds.

Each quarter, the classes participate in a summative night, in which they showcase their knowledge to their parents and friends.

Teagan Fernandez, a parent, says she noticed her two children were truly proud to show off their knowledge at the quarterly summative.

“I’ve noticed they’re really eager to show off what they’ve learned and what they’ve done,” she says.

Fernandez listened in awe as her second-grader recited the names of the parts of a plant – in Spanish.

“I sat there and thought, ‘I can’t believe this is second grade,’ ” she says. “How he understood the whole concept, as an 8-year-old, was amazing to me.”

This responsibility early on – whether choosing a specialization or presenting their projects – is creating an important cornerstone in their education, Bullock says.

“These kids are going to learn how to take responsibility for their future,” she says. “They are going to make goals for themselves and figure out what the steps are to attain those goals.”

To learn more about Polytechnic Elementary School and the partnership behind it, visit the Web site

Celeste Sepessy,
University Initiatives