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Project FIRST: When Science and Cyberspace Meet, Sparks Fly

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs
Posted April 19, 2000

If asked to describe the cloud cover over San Francisco Bay, 40 first-, second- and third-grade students from Oakland's Hoover Elementary School would choose big words like "cirrus" and "nimbostratus" rather than descriptive phrases like "thin, fleecy white strands of cotton."

They have a penchant for science terms and a zest for exploring the natural world, thanks to an innovative outreach program known as Project FIRST (Foundations in Reading through Science and Technology), which augments the K-4 science curriculum and stimulates kids' curiosity.

It's all just a mouse click away. And for young cybernavigators, it's an opportunity to dive into the World Wide Web and develop critical reading and writing skills while they learn science.

"Project FIRST is helping bridge the digital divide between those who have and don't have access to current learning technologies and tools," said Ruth Paglierani, who leads the project at the Center for Science Education at the Space Sciences Laboratory. "Students in this program are getting a real leg up on science and literacy through a unique combination of computer technologies and one-on-one interaction with UC tutors who work with them during and after school."

Project FIRST is one of 11 Internet-based projects supported by the Interactive University, a campuswide effort that facilitates the work of Berkeley faculty, students and staff as they work to develop successful school-university relationships, improve student achievement and assist teachers in Bay Area schools. Since its inception three years ago at Hoover Elementary School, the science curriculum has become a model for classroom studies of weather and seasons.

Paglierani says access to the Internet and all of its visually exciting capabilities is key to the success of the program.

"In the first grade, every child needs a solid foundation in reading, and the Internet is a very effective way to stimulate their natural curiosity," she said. "The Internet gives them visually compelling computer tools and an interactive environment in which to communicate and learn language."

Paglierani, in collaboration with UC scientists and teachers, has concentrated her recent efforts on designing an interactive Web site known as "Eye on the Sky." The online weather journal was tailored to the literacy skills of beginning readers and is now being used in classrooms in the Oakland and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts.

"We've seen a marked improvement in their reading scores, which tells us the model program is having an impact," she said. "We've now completed a full year of science curriculum for teachers and have 16 undergraduate students tutoring the kids in the daytime and after-school programs. We've found that this program can become a turning point, not just for the kids but for some of our undergraduates, who have decided to earn their teaching credentials."

Project FIRST's overarching objective is aimed at improving K-12 education and increasing the pool of UC-eligible students graduating from California high schools. Its curriculum incorporates science topics with a literacy intervention strategy developed by the Graduate School of Education, and tailors subject matter to meet the needs of individual students.

At Hoover Elementary School, two programs have been implemented: a daytime program for first-graders and an after-school program for second- and third-graders. Six topics ranging from movement in the earth to impact craters on the moon are the focal point for classroom activities, along with "key pal" e-mail exchanges and excursions onto the World Wide Web.

"We stress an interactive, inquiry-based learning process in our program," Paglierani said. "When you couple hands-on science teaching in the classroom with the visual medium of the Web, you spark children's imagination. All of a sudden, they want to use the Web to tell their friends what they've learned, and in doing that, they are developing reading and writing skills."



April 19-26, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 29)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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