Building bridges from research to education | National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois

Building bridges from research to education

09.17.10 -

Few of the advantages of the national cyberinfrastructure will be realized without scientists and engineers who understand the new capabilities that it provides.

The cybereducation team at NCSA helps bridge the gap between research and education by conducting activities and programs to disseminate advanced technologies to new—as well as established—communities, encouraging them to adopt computational technologies as learning tools. The group conducts a wide variety of programs, from middle school through college graduate level.

One of our initiatives is the Institute for Chemistry Literacy through Computational Science (ICLCS). A five-year, $5 million Math Science Partnership program, ICLCS targets 118 rural school districts and 124 high school chemistry teachers in Illinois. Teachers in the program spend two weeks for each of three summers at NCSA, learning how to use computational resources and tools to transform their students' science education.

In much the same way that researchers are using computational and collaboration tools to advance science and share best practices, ICLCS has shown that the use of computational tools in the classroom combined with support for a virtual professional learning community (VPLC) leads to a statistically significant increase in achievement for high school students in rural schools based upon standardized testing. In addition, findings to date indicate that with each year of participation in the program teachers are continuing to gain chemistry content knowledge at the highest levels. Since over 30 percent of these teachers are the only science teacher in their small district, many feel that for the first time in their career they have science colleagues with whom to communicate and share ideas. With over 24,480 logins, 6,916 postings, and over 340,000 views since summer 2007 among teachers, faculty and researchers, the VLPC is well on its way to being a self-sustaining community of practice.

With support from an NSF Robert Noyce Master Teaching supplement, we are providing a cohort of ICLCS teachers with a unique infrastructure of support as they go through the National Board Certification process.

Our ICLCS successes are being noticed. The ICLCS team was invited to present at the 2009 U.S. Senate Technology Showcase and to a selected group of the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2010. In addition, ICLCS is changing the way chemistry is taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where we are partnering with chemistry instructors and faculty to develop computational labs to support existing wet labs for general chemistry classes, which serve 3,500-4,000 each semester, and to deploy an online organic chemistry course using visualization tools and WebMO to construct 3D molecules.

WebMO is a web-based computational quantum chemistry software package used by ICLCS teachers, Illinois chemistry professors, and their students. Over the course of 15 months, nearly 32,000 jobs had been submitted by teachers (19,000) and by their students (13,000).

Recently, the NCSA cybereducation team deployed the first National Science Olympiad event using computer modeling. The Science Olympiad National Tournament was held on the Illinois campus this past May for nearly 1,500 students from 49 states. Ninety-two middle school and 50 high school students representing the top competitors in their state competed in the ModelThis! competition, using Vensim and NetLogo to answer questions related to predator-prey interactions and epidemiology, respectively.

One of NCSA cybereducation's longest-running programs is Girls Engaged in Mathematics and Science (GEMS). It was created in 1994 to encourage middle school girls to consider mathematics- and science-oriented careers, to gain confidence in doing math and science, and to take advanced-level mathematics and science courses in high school. Since its inception, the GEMS program has provided over 1,200 middle school girls with access to leading-edge research of female role models and to computational tools. The first GEMS website was created by a team of eighth-grade girls using NCSA Mosaic. Girls even participate in grid activities to connect with researchers and other girls in countries around the world.

The work of the cybereducation team would not be possible without our education interns, many of whom spend multiple years at NCSA and have gone on to create Farmville and MergeFM as young entrepreneurs. Our interns come from many colleges and departments on campus. We make a concerted effort to recruit interns, who are paid from grant funds, and have engaged many students from underrepresented communities over the years. In addition, eight interns are participating in a research experience for undergraduates program with an NCSA researcher.

Interns conduct a wide variety of activities, including developing instructional materials for education communities that infuse technology and authentic research tools into pre-college and undergraduate courses, and evaluation activities that assess the impact of our activities.

Interns also collaborated with Millersville University to develop a set of new features to existing LEAD-2-Learn modules for the Linked Environments for Atmospheric Discovery project. Interns created an interactive, inquiry- based, and self-guided experience for undergraduate education. They also created a modified version of Unidata's Integrated Data Viewer (IDV), called Basic IDV, for novice users that reduced the number of parameters needed to conduct activities. The result was greater accessibility using the minimally configured computers often found in secondary schools. Unidata has since adapted this feature in IDV.

The best part of leading the cybereducation team is working with creative and innovative students at all levels. They are having a big impact on science education.

Edee Wiziecki
Cybereducation Lead
NCSA