CORVALLIS - Oregon State University has received a seven-year, $1.75 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for development of a program that may dramatically improve the science education and environmental health knowledge of high school students.

The grant, one of the largest and longest of its type ever made for new program development in K-12 science education, will at first benefit Oregon high school students. The curriculum innovations that evolve from it, however, may later be used across the nation.

The program recognizes the advances OSU has made in recent years and reflects the desire of the NIEHS to build on those programs, educators say.

"In our SMILE program and other academic departments, OSU has long been an innovator in developing new approaches to science and math education, often with NIEHS support," said Molly Bloomfield, director of the new project. "We're pleased that NIEHS has seen the value of these efforts and made a major commitment to implement our ideas.

"The innovations we are proposing should be of enormous value to Oregon's high school science teachers and students," she said. "In addition to improving the overall performance of students in math and science, the curricula will help students appreciate the effects of the environment on human health and community well being."

Called the "Hydroville Curriculum Project," the program focuses on the environmental problems of a mythical town called Hydroville. Students will wrestle with various environmental issues facing the local citizens, such as poor indoor air quality, pesticide spills, a mysterious illness outbreak and deteriorating water quality. They will then work in teams to solve the problem from the ground up.

"When they are assigned a problem, students will learn not only about the specifics of that issue but the science behind it," said Nancy Kerkvliet, the principal investigator of the project and an OSU professor of environmental and molecular toxicology. "They collect and analyze data, and find out what various solutions might cost. They work in teams and specialize in different areas of scientific expertise. They might try to develop ways to pay for a solution, write a ballot measure, design supportive television advertising and talk with everyone from local political leaders to scientists, engineers and the news media."

That broad, issue-oriented approach has been shown to be a highly successful educational technique that keeps the interest of students. In the process, they learn everything from basic science to math, interpersonal relations, problem solving skills, risk assessment, impacts on local economies, speaking and writing. And they gain a much better feel for the complexity of modern environmental problems and the approaches needed to solve them.

Partners in the program will be the OSU Environmental Health Sciences Center; the OSU Science and Math Investigative Learning Experience (SMILE) Program; the OSU Marine Freshwater Biomedical Sciences Center; OSU Department of Public Health; and the Oregon Department of Education.

The project will first create and test a curriculum in SMILE classes across Oregon, which have worked for years with this type of hands-on, problem oriented approach to learning science. It will then expand to 10 pilot schools in the state, often in areas with a high proportion of minority and economically disadvantaged students. Eventually Bloomfield hopes for the program to be carried statewide via the "pilot teachers" that have been trained.

In each participating school, educational teams that include a math, science and language arts or social studies teacher will be formed and the teachers trained in summer institutes. The new program should be a good fit with Oregon's Certificate of Initial Mastery, or CIM programs, and other standards-based approaches to learning.

According to Kerkvliet, the funding will help support teacher stipends, travel expenses to attend training seminars, website development, video production, program evaluation and other needs. About 150 teachers will be trained in each year of the project, officials say.

"There's growing awareness that students learn better when they get personally involved in an issue, and when the information they get in school can be used in the real world to solve real problems," Bloomfield said. "We've been doing this for years in SMILE, which was designed to encourage more interest in math and science careers among Oregon's minority and disadvantaged youth. The concept worked better than we ever would have thought possible, and SMILE graduates are now studying science in college. The next step is to perfect these programs and broaden them for use by all Oregon students."

With this approach, Bloomfield said, students learn a lot about math, science, and the difficult environmental issues facing the United States. But they also will get out of the classroom, get their hands dirty, visit construction sites, and learn about the range of careers that can be available with a good knowledge of math, science and other skills.

"We think is a going to be a unique educational opportunity for the state of Oregon and we're very happy to be a part of it," Bloomfield said.

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Molly Bloomfield, 541-737-8892