WMU News

Upton Foundation gift funds WMU science education effort

July 8, 2003

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- Inquiring minds throughout Berrien County will benefit from a $50,000 gift from the Frederick S. Upton Foundation to Western Michigan University.

The donation was announced today by University officials as they launched a summer science program for area teachers and named two high-tech science laboratories in honor of Frederick and Margaret Upton. The labs and the program are at the WMU-Southwest campus in Benton Harbor.

The Upton Foundation Science Academy, which welcomed its first class of teachers July 7, immerses educators in two weeks of hands-on learning experiences and enhances their ability to reach students. The workshop is based on inquiry-based learning, which goes beyond reading from a textbook, says Dr. Joseph Stoltman, a WMU geography professor and facilitator for the academy.

"It means using equipment and materials to replicate and develop new experiments to help validate and verify scientific principles--the same principles scientists work with," he says. "This program is very different in that we're looking at teachers engaging students with science content and determining what it is they need to provide inquiry-based learning opportunities. It's also unique in terms of the hands-on approach, the materials the teachers will be experimenting with and how they see those learning experiences transformed or connected to their students."

Instructors will take what they learn in the lab and apply it to lessons in their classrooms. University and public school officials believe the new program has the potential to ignite more student interest in science, increase the number of students who choose science careers, and improve student performance on the science portion of the exams that are part of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, known as MEAP. It also offers longtime educators, many of whom were not formally trained to teach science, a chance to bolster their skills.

The gift from the Upton Foundation, now directed by the founders' children and grandchildren, underwrites the academy through 2005 and mirrors the organization's values.

"We have always been interested in education, and my mother, Margaret, was a teacher in her early years," says Stephen E. Upton, president of the foundation established in 1954 by his parents. "When we discussed this, we wanted to look at ways to make teachers even better at science. We've all had teachers who weren't so great, but when you have a good teacher, the people who go through their classes may be exceptional as well. This is a good way to achieve that."

The new WMU labs are equipped with the latest in state-of-the-art technology. Each lab accommodates about 25 students, offers wireless access to the Internet, and boasts two computers--a Macintosh and a Windows PC--at each workstation. Since January, WMU elementary education majors have studied life, physical and earth science in the labs.

"When you walk into these labs, you aren't likely to see Bunsen burners sitting around or frogs waiting to be dissected," says Leonard Seawood, director of Extended University Programs' WMU-Southwest campus. "They are hands-on and high-tech. And when you look at inquiry-based learning, we're on the cutting edge."

While the summer academy classes in 2004 and 2005 will target biology and physical science, this year's participants will hone their teaching skills in earth science. Rocks and minerals, soil, erosion, sedimentation, weather and climate are among the many topics that will be investigated.

The labs provide the perfect environment for inquiry-based teaching, says Stoltman.

"The teachers can carry out an experiment on the table in front of them, and then turn and look at real-world applications on the World Wide Web," he says. "They can take a look out the window and then turn to the Internet to check the images from weather satellites that are constantly monitoring the state of the atmosphere. In this lab they can observe the current weather conditions in Montana or the Mississippi River Valley and apply principles of atmospheric science to predict what's going to happen in southwest Michigan two days from now.

Media contact: Thom Myers, 269 387-8400, thom.myers@wmich.edu

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