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LANL Foundation brings science to classrooms

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By Wren Propp

CHIMAYO — A huge warehouse here holds a treasure trove – boxes filled with materials needed to teach young students lessons about energy, matter, or other science topics.

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Operated by the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation, a nonprofit with programs fostering educational opportunities in communities in the shadow of the national laboratory in Los Alamos, the 7-year-old program offers science education modules or “kits” for northern New Mexico elementary classrooms.

And, they deliver.

LANL Foundation officials provided a tour of the warehouse earlier this week to representatives of Sens. Tom Udall, D-NM, and Martin Heinrich, D-NM. The tour offered a ground-floor view of the Inquiry Science Education Consortium, which includes providing professional development for the hundreds of teachers who receive the modules or kits, twice a year.

Two science education organizations developed the curriculum on which the modules are based, the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of Berkeley and Science Resource Center of the Smithsonian Institute, according to the LANL Foundation. Classrooms at each grade level use two modules a year; one is focused on Earth science, the other on physical science.

In some cases, depending on the grade level and the topic, a teacher may get three or more containers, filled with a wide range of materials – magnets, wires, circuits – to help students take on science inquiry.

Depending on the lesson, students are offered big questions, such as “what is matter?” or “what is energy?” said Gwen Perea Warniment, program director for kindergarten through 12th grade at the foundation.

The modules, or kits, are picked up at the end of the fall or the spring and inventoried and refurbished by the materials specialists at the warehouse – who ensure that the boxes also include everything a teacher will need, down to the duct tape, magnet or a roll of aluminum foil.

“Teachers don’t have to make a trip to the store for anything,” said Bryan Maestas, ISED Science Resource Center coordinator.

The curriculum, and its focus on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, is helping students take a large step forward into the National Science new science standards planned for New Mexico classrooms in the future, Warniment said in an interview after the meeting with the senators’ representatives.

It closely adheres to Next Generation Science Standards developed about three years ago and adopted by several states.

Earlier this fall, Warniment and LANL Foundation CEO Jenny Park, testified to a packed hall in Santa Fe in opposition to new science education standards proposed by the state Public Education Department.

The proposal drew stiff criticism from scientists, Los Alamos Public Schools and other school districts, parents and students because it did not closely adhere to the Next Generation Science Standards.

The PED withdrew its proposal, saying it would propose full adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards.

The next question, however, is whether New Mexico will be able to provide financial support to overhaul curriculum and provide support for instructors. For example, Next Generation calls for integrating or “cross-cutting” ideas throughout the students’ class time.

“The standards require performance; multiple choice is not performance,” she said.

LANL Foundation’s experience with Next Generation-level materials may be helpful to understand the costs and benefits, Warniment said.