Innovative program celebrates a decade in Alabama

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Students in Jennifer Dunn’s fourth-grade class can hardly wait for science time to roll around.

“They look forward to it every day, all day. And they are learning so much,” Dunn said of her Troy Elementary School students.

That enthusiasm is due to the school’s participation in the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative (AMSTI).

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The program is a decade old this month and has grown to have a presence in more than 800 schools. AMSTI has been credited with changing the way students view math and science by using hands-on teaching methods.

Teachers use kits called modules that contain equipment ranging from plastic cups and cotton balls to GPS devices and mass spectrophotometers to engage students.

“With one of our kits, the kids essentially play with K’NEX (a construction toy), but they figure out force and pull and friction and create their own vehicles,” Dunn said.

Then the students take the vehicles outside to race them, discussing kinetic and potential energy and gravity.

“You go all the way across the curriculum with it,” Dunn said. “We bring in history lessons to include Leonardo DaVinci’s work.”

Students in Dunn’s class also create circuits, light a light bulb using batteries and build a flashlight out of a paper towel roll.

“I have so many books that I bought to teach them about electricity because the lessons are so difficult, but AMSTI changed all of that,” Dunn said.

AMSTI is voluntary for schools, but since it is funded from a state line item in the education budget, there is no direct cost to the teacher, school or school district. Even the kits are free as long as the school remains a certified AMSTI school.

“They give us everything,” said Laura Ellis who teaches second-grade at Banks Elementary School. “Everything we need for a full nine weeks is in a kit. They’re well packed.”

Ellis said that her students are more engaged than ever before and she can “almost see the wheels turning in their heads” as they work to solve problems. And there is even an unforeseen benefit of AMSTI – Ellis’ students have been learning cooperation.

“I really have noticed how much it has helped my students work better in groups,” Ellis said. “They have to work together to solve problems and create hypothesis and theories. You really see that cooperation grow.”

The first AMSTI training site began operation in the Huntsville area in June 2002 with a National Air and Space Administration grant to serve 20 schools that year. Now, AMSTI is the largest and most comprehensive math and science initiative in the nation, according to the initiative directors. The program has received both national and international recognition for its effectiveness in raising achievement scores and improving student interest in math and science.

“By all accounts, our students and our teachers have really found an added benefit by being able to incorporate AMSTI into our science and math teaching,” said Donnella Carter, administrative assistant for Curriculum and Federal Programs at Pike County Schools. “There are different ways to convey a concept to children and this gives us another avenue to do that, especially when it is a really abstract concept.”

Pike County Schools Superintendent Dr. Mark Bazzell said AMSTI is “a very positive thing” for students.

Results of a five-year, $3 million study by the U.S. Department of Education were released in late February and showed statistically significant and meaningful student achievement in AMSTI schools.

The study found that students who attended AMSTI schools and classes for one year showed a gain of two percentile points on the SAT-10 mathematics problem solving assessment when compared with students at non-AMSTI schools. The gains compare to an average of 28 extra days of schooling in math.

Exploratory results indicated students who attended AMSTI schools and classes for at least two years showed a gain of four percentile points when compared to other students. Those gains compare to an average of 50 extra days of schooling in math.

“It’s hard to get middle school students excited about anything,” said Tammy Goss, a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Pike County High School. “But they are excited to come to science class. They are engaged in my room.”

Goss shared one of the reasons high school students seem to excel with AMSTI is that the much of the discovery of learning is turned over to the teens. Struggling students are able to analyze concepts in a different way and work in connection with other students to see new methods of problem solving.

“I am proud that we have the program in this area and that we are able to participate,” Goss said. “I feel it does make a huge difference in the way kids are performing.”