Sunday, June 23rd
Senior Manager, Access Excellence
"If you were given X number of dollars, what would you do to improve Biology education?" That was the question posed to a focus group composed of 27 Bay Area science educators in March of 1993.
Everyone had different needs. One teacher proposed a museum, another biotech materials, and another teacher suggested that the money be used to buy more test tubes. And among the 27 teachers, there were three that thought that there might be a better way to improve Biology education, saying "Let's go nationwide!"
Genentech listened and the brainstorming began.
The trio identified several problems. They recognized that science teachers felt isolated from their colleagues. Even teachers in the same county only had the opportunity to see each other at conventions. The teachers felt isolated from the science world and the cutting edge of biological research. It became clear that there was a real need to get teachers connected, with each other and with the larger science community.
"Do you REALLY think this is true nationwide???" asked the people from Genentech, shaking their heads in disbelief. The trio, active on curricular projects and reform projects, responded- "We strongly suspect that it is so, we have often heard the same complaints."
"We need actual data," was the response from the Genentech people. A consulting firm was hired, communicated with leaders in education, developed a survey, surveyed 900 educators. Sure enough, they found that: Teachers feel isolated from their colleagues. Teachers feel isolated from the science world. Teachers feel isolated from cutting edge science.
By June of 1993, a plan was approved. The plan would be tested on the trio. Each teacher would be given a computer, software and training to facilitate access to their colleagues in the teaching community, the scientific community and cutting edge science. Access Excellence? What a revolutionary idea. Would it improve biology education as we know it? Would accessibility actually make a difference in the way science is taught, not only in the classrooms of the trio or the initial 100, but in the classrooms of 75,000 biology teachers? Could a program succeed that is teacher-driven- by teachers for teachers?
THE FIRST CLASS OF AE FELLOWS
1994 saw the debut of Access Excellence. With input from NSTA and other resources, 105 of the best high school science teachers in the US were chosen to participate in the program. They gathered in San Francisco in the summer for the first Access Excellence Summit. Armed with their new Macintosh Powerbooks the Fellows underwent computer training, visited local research facilities and attended seminars by renowned biological researchers including Dr. Don Francis. Finally, they returned to their respective homes across the country, ready for what the modem might bring.
Meanwhile, the Access Excellence staff continued to grow, and the all important on-line resources began to take shape. In November of 1994, Access Excellence went live on America Online. There was a learning curve for everyone in the early days, as might be expected. However, the discussion areas (Teacher's Lounge etc.) soon came to life, with an ever growing number of on-line discussions on a wide range of topics, from PCR to composting. The teachers began to share activities-to-go in cyberspace. Access Excellence gained momentum. The What's News section, a combination of breaking science news, factoids, interviews and media suggestions was a hit. The science seminars provided a new way to interact with leading researchers. Gradually the word began to spread, and other science teachers with online access began to participate.
The initial response to the Access Excellence resource was enthusiastic and affirmative. Teachers were talking to teachers and links with the scientific community were established. Some participants commented that making this resource available on the Internet would enable it to reach even more teachers. This led to the development of a World Wide Web site in April, 1995 which mirrored the content of the original AOL site, while taking full advantage of the multimedia capabilities of the web.
The web site also proved to be a success. When an outbreak of Ebola virus struck Zaire, Access Excellence became one of the hot spots on the Internet as hundreds of thousands of people logged in to read an interview with Dr. Fred Murphy, an expert on the Ebola virus.
THE SECOND CLASS OF AE FELLOWS
The second class of Access Excellence Fellows selected by NSTA attended the June, 1995 Summit in South San Francisco. Ten "Summer Scholars" from the first class participated in the Summit as breakout group facilitators and computer training assistants.
The AOL forum was closed down to focus more resources on the WWW forum. All AE Fellows were given a web migration option of switching over the Internet. To prepare for these new arrivals, the forum was updated to include a new Activities-to-Go section categorized according to the new science standards. Another new area was launched entitled, "Classrooms of the 21st Century," to provide teachers a resource for dealing with technology in the classroom, authentic assessment, and the new science standards.
THE NEXT WAVE
Today marks the start of the third Summit. The new AE Fellows have received their Powerbooks and are participating in a full schedule of classes, lectures, tours and social events. Several of last year's fellows have been chosen as "Retro Fellows". They are helping the new Fellows learn the ropes as well as participating in further training themselves.
Lessons learned the first and second Summit have been taken to heart. There is much more emphasis on computer training, and the organization of the various activities has been tightened up considerably. There is also a renewed emphasis on the overall goals of the program, and on the role of each individual participant when the Summit ends and everyone goes home.
Access Excellence continues to evolve. What's next? Only time and the participation of the new Fellows will tell.
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