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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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New Mexico State University program helps create inquiry-based learning

Through New Mexico State University's GK-12 program, area middle school science teachers are working with university faculty and graduate fellows to create an environment of inquiry-based learning in public schools.

(From left to right) Lynn Middle School science teacher Mary Lessman, NMSU graduate students in biology Kathy Whiteman and Jake Strouse and NMSU physics professor Steve Kanim work to design an experiment for a GK-12 competition. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Inquiry-based learning differs from traditional methods in that students participate in activities, seek information and ask questions, rather than receiving traditional lectures, said Nancy McMillan, NMSU's GK-12 director.

Under the guidance of the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park (CDNP), NMSU faculty and graduate fellows work with teachers in the Las Cruces, Hatch and Gadsden public schools to design and teach middle school students hands-on experiments that weave geology, biology, chemistry and physics with the theme of environmental science.

The GK-12 program works to forge partnerships between middle school teachers and NMSU graduate students and create successful mentoring relationships between graduate and middle school students.

One of the program's goals is to increase the interaction between university faculty and graduate students with the three public school systems in south-central New Mexico and enhance middle school teachers' knowledge and experience in inquiry-based learning.

The program helps participating graduate students by enhancing their knowledge of learning methods and teaching and communication skills. They also gain an understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of scientific processes while building a life-long commitment to serve as a resource in the schools, McMillan said.

Program participants implement inquiry-based learning modules developed by CDNP that explore local environmental issues and develop modules which integrate geology, biology, chemistry and weather data.

"Right now, our graduate students are writing their own interdisciplinary, inquiry-based modules to teach in the middle schools they are working in," McMillan said.

There are about 120 GK-12 sites across the United States. This is the first semester the program is in operation at NMSU and it will be in operation until summer 2006.

NMSU's GK-12 program is funded by a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation through the "GK-12: Middle School Student Investigators in Environmental Science" project. The project partners graduate fellows with a middle school teacher at each middle school in area school districts. Participating schools also received weather software that allows them to access data from more than 6,000 locations nationwide.

CDNP is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving scientific literacy by promoting an understanding of the Chihuahuan Desert. The organization currently serves more than 11,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade students in southern New Mexico and west Texas with interactive, inquiry-based science education programs each year. The programs are designed to increase students' understanding of desert ecosystems and promote the application of critical thinking skills to local and global environmental issues.

For more information call McMillan at (505) 646-5000 or visit the NMSU GK-12 Web site at http://www.nmsu.edu/gk12/.