“Textbooks are too narrow and outdated, especially in science. We aren’t simply using the technology to access electronic textbooks; we are going beyond them. Why limit yourself to a backyard pool when you can swim in an ocean of knowledge?” – USA

Dr. Michael Frank is a trailblazer. He helped design the approach and curriculum for Empire High School, one of the first schools built around the idea of replacing textbooks with laptops. “Teachers who are new to the school are sometimes worried that they will have to have the students using the laptops all the time, but that is not the case,” says Frank. “What we really want is appropriate use of the technology. We want teachers to experiment and see what kinds of use work best for their teaching style and for the learning styles of their particular students. We spend a lot of our professional development time sharing best practices, and we also spend time observing other teachers, both in our subject area and out of it, to see new ideas and approaches.”

If you wonder if Frank’s approach is effective, well, it has a pretty impressive stamp of approval, from the President of the United States. Frank was selected as a recipient of the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Only 97 teachers across the nation were selected in 2012, and Frank was the only teacher from Arizona to receive the award.

Not only does Frank teach a full schedule, he is also the Science Department Instructional Team Leader for his school, working with science teachers across his school district to develop effective and relevant science curriculums.  He is a consummate scientist and teacher, and he is not afraid to share what is working for his school and students. You can see photos of his classroom at the “Classrooms of the World” tour on our site.

Today, Frank shares why the one-to-one laptop approach is working so well at his school, and gives us his scientist’s perspective on high-stakes testing.

Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

I’m very lucky to have been involved in the design and opening of Empire High School (Vail Unified School District, Vail, Arizona). We designed the school, both physically and culturally, around the idea of giving students laptops instead of textbooks, and were the first in the country to do it to this extent. There is wi-fi access everywhere on campus and even on some of our school buses. Students take the laptops home, and some even use them over summer break.

When we decided to do this, many people assumed we would just supply electronic copies of textbooks, but that is not the case. Instead we write our own courses. We start with the state standards, and then pull together the materials, activities and experiments we want to use from online and offline sources. We do a lot of collaboration and sharing of these course materials as we develop them. Teachers of the same subject across the district work together to develop common calendars, so that students who transfer schools during the year don’t lose out, and so that we can have common assessments.

As we built up these course materials, at first we just shared them informally with new teachers as they came in, which they could use or modify as needed. After a while though, we started to spread this way of working to the rest of the district through our Beyond Textbooks Initiative. We have a site that has all the state education standards in all the subjects broken down by individual performance objective, and we upload a variety of materials, from complete educational units to individual presentations, activities, or even useful links. Not only is this helping other teachers in our district, but it is available to other districts in the state, especially smaller ones that do not have the resources to do this kind of curriculum development. At last count there were nearly 8000 teachers across Arizona with access to our work.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

In my classes in particular, this constant connection to the Internet has made science classes much more authentic and immediate. I can have students research a new idea that was just in the news that day. They have access to an incredible variety of resources and tools and data, and this lends a lot of depth to the inquiry-based science we are incorporating in our classes. We aren’t tied only to the material that happens to be in a ten-year-old textbook. The students in most of our science classes design and carry out their own long-term experiments, and they are supported in this by the information they have access to from the Internet. Part of my job, then, is to help point them to the best resources, and show them how to use the tools available, and help them practice doing real science. They gain a real understanding of the process of science, not just a list of facts that are the product of science, and that is one of the most important skills we want our students to have.

I also work with teachers across the district to promote inquiry-based science, both in class labs and activities, and also by encouraging students to design and carry out their own experiments. Each school puts on a science fair as a forum for the students to share their work, and top projects go on to regional and international competition. We are getting increasing participation and increasing success as students see their friends go on to win prizes for doing science. We are also seeing improvements in achievement in their science classes and on the state tests.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

We have been very successful with our version of the one-to-one laptop model because the school started with this in mind. The staff involved (teachers, administrators, and support staff), and the staff we have hired since, all came into the school knowing this is how we do things. The school board and district administration knew this was an experiment, and gave us a lot of freedom to find our own way, and helped provide us with the resources we needed. If you were to try to impose this on an established school, it would be very difficult. Some of the things we have done have been adopted by other schools in our district as they have seen how well it has worked for us.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

In addition to what I have talked about above, I use a variety of teaching approaches, and use technology in a variety of ways. To help support my students, I record podcasts of lectures so that students who are absent don’t miss out. Many students also use these to review. Anything I hand out physically in class is also available as a .pdf on the class blog. Some resources are just distributed electronically. The blog also has daily information about the objectives for the day or week, questions for students to answer at the beginning of the period about things we have been doing recently, and details about assignments, deadlines, and test schedules. I also post links to other online resources, interesting science articles and videos, etc. This is not only available to students, but parents also have access to it and can know exactly what is going on and what the students should be working on at any particular time.

When students are working on experiments, we may use high-tech devices such as dataloggers that import results directly into Excel or other data-analysis software, or we may use other methods. It is important for students to see there are different ways to answer questions. When we go out into the nearby desert to do ecological research, some students may be measuring CO2 and O2 levels using Pasco or Vernier probes, while others may be studying other aspects of the system using a meter stick and a magnifying glass. We may explore a concept using real hands-on experiments, or we may use an online PhET simulation. The emphasis isn’t on the newest technology; the emphasis is on finding the best way to answer a particular question. When technology helps you do that, then we use it. If it is misused or forced, technology can get in the way of what you really want to teach.

Other technology resources we use are online data and tools. A great example of this is the National Center for Biotechnology Information and GenBank, which is a huge database of DNA, RNA, and protein sequences and also a set of tools for searching and analyzing that data. We have also used online ecological data sets, such as flux-tower measurements that record changes in CO2 and O2 levels, light, water vapor, etc., at many sites around the world. We can look at changes in those systems and compare them to what is happening locally. Another resource I am looking forward to using this year is from the iPlant Collaborative, an National Science Foundation initiative that I was associated with. They have developed several ongoing plant genomics projects, including DNA Subway, which is a portal to make this information accessible to teachers and students.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

The biggest obstacle is time. The way the Arizona No Child Left Behind test is structured, it is given in early spring in 10th grade, and is based on biology with a heavy emphasis on the process of science in general. We teach biology as a 10th grade class, so that means we have only about two-thirds of the year to teach what is really more than a year’s worth of content. There is so much more we could do if we even had a few more weeks! We have dealt with this some by redesigning our 9th grade science classes to better support the 10th grade biology class. Originally the 9th grade class was an earth science class that did not tie in well with biology. Students now spend much more time learning about the process of science in 9th grade, so that they can practice it in 10th grade. We also make sure they get a great introduction to physics (with a lot of great visual hands-on labs) and chemistry, and this prepares them better for biology.

Time is also an obstacle in the sense that until recently Arizona only required students to pass two years of science and two years of math in order to graduate from high school.
That does not really prepare students for life after high school, even for those who are not going on to college. This is now changing to three years of science and four years of math, which is at least a step in the right direction. I have encouraged the science teachers at my school to develop a fairly wide variety of science classes to address many interests, and we now have most students taking four years of science, and even have quite a few students who take more than one science class at a time.

What is your region doing well currently to support education?

Arizona is one of the states involved with the development of the Next-Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which do a much better job incorporating the practice of science than do our current state science education standards that are largely topic-based. They are the science version of the Common Core Standards that have been developed for math and language arts. I hope that this means we will be adopting the NGSS soon. The NGSS are being developed from the recommendations of the National Research Council’s A Framework for K-12 Science Education, and are based on research about effective methods of science education.

What conditions must change in your region to better support education?

It is fairly well known that Arizona ranks at or very near the bottom of states in funding for public education. This has been true for quite a while and the recent economic downturn only made the problem worse. The foresight of administrators in my school district helped minimize the impact of the recent budget cuts, but that isn’t true for most teachers in the state. Even though there is a lot of support in the public for education, we seem to elect officials who want to cut funding to public education, not improve it. We have legislators who, if it were constitutional, would completely eliminate public education. Even now they are funneling public tax funds to private schools, and also giving preferential funding to charter schools, with little or no accountability at those schools.

This is largely a cultural issue that we need to overcome, as there is a perception that public schools are inherently ineffective and that private schools and charter schools are inherently more effective and superior. That perception is not supported by evidence, though. There certainly are some excellent charter schools and private schools around, especially those with a STEM emphasis, but there are a greater number of excellent public schools, and there are charter schools that fail their students. I think this is really a national issue, although it is magnified in Arizona, and the same accountability standards and methods of judging effectiveness in schools should apply to all.

This trend is very worrying and the diversion of public funds to private schools is denying many students the quality of education they should have. “Trickle-down” economics doesn’t work for education funding. We need to do a better job of helping people to understand that education funding is a highly-effective and highly-worthwhile investment in the future of our students and of our country.

There are some groups who are helping with this situation, though. Many technology companies are very aware that the situation needs to improve so that they have the trained workforce they need. Locally, Intel and Raytheon, among others, have done a lot to help improve STEM education and promote STEM careers. There is also a very active public-private partnership, Science Foundation Arizona, which funds both scientific research and also initiatives to improve STEM education. This all helps, but we still have a long road to travel before the situation is where it should be.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

One innovation that I see as having a huge impact is the movement away from textbooks. Our ongoing technological advancements – ubiquitous Internet access, lower-cost laptops,
iPads, e-readers, iPhones, etc. – make a wealth of information available not only in the classroom but at any time we want it. Textbooks are too narrow and outdated, especially in science. We aren’t simply using the technology to access electronic textbooks; we are going beyond them. Why limit yourself to a backyard pool when you can swim in an ocean of knowledge? Many teachers and schools are embracing this and experimenting with it as we are, but in many cases this may be an outside-in move. Even as it becomes more economically feasible for more schools, inertia slows the process of change, and schools are sticking to 19th– and 20th-century methods. The more this open access to information becomes the normal way outside schools, the more pressure there will be for that change to happen. There is a great deal of potential opportunity for people who are looking at ways to make these changes easier technologically, or who are pioneering the most effective ways to teach in this environment. It also frees educators from presenting information only as text. We can work in multiple media.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

Identify master teachers in your subject area and preferred grade level and spend time in their classes. Don’t limit yourself to your cooperating teacher when you are doing student teaching. The more you observe other approaches and styles, the more of a toolbox you can build so that you can experiment and find out which of those proven methods works best for you in your particular situation. Don’t stop doing that. At my school all teachers are given time to observe others, both in their content area and outside it. We can observe teachers at other schools if we wish. It provides great input for self-evaluation and ideas and growth.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students?

I think the move to national education standards will ultimately be a great thing, especially if teachers and administrators view them as a starting point, not a limit to what we teach. We want to guarantee that everyone has the chance to reach the same agreed-upon minimum level, but still have the possibility of going well beyond that point. The Next-Generation Science Standards have the potential to revolutionize a lot of science education in this country, especially at the elementary level where science has taken a back seat, and we have a great need for that to happen.

Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

Testing, testing, more testing, and then testing the tests. There is a point at which all the testing takes away from the time needed to teach the concepts and skills in the first place. I am a scientist so I really appreciate the need to collect and analyze data, and basing changes in education on real data is a great thing, but there are many skills we want our students to have that can’t be evaluated by a multiple-choice high-stakes test given at the end of the year.

Also, comparing how one group of students does on that test to how a different group of students another year scores on a different version of that test doesn’t really tell you how effective your teaching is, and shouldn’t be the main method of evaluating effectiveness. If you really want to see whether a group of students has improved, you need to use the same evaluation before and after the learning has occurred, and compare those scores to see how many actually improved. There has been some great research at the college level in physics education using the Force-Concept Inventory in this way to show the effectiveness of different teaching approaches, but this isn’t occurring at the high school level much yet.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

Constant, reliable, two-way access to the Internet. As I talked about above, we are already moving in that direction, but there is still a lot of disparity in terms of access. Everyone should have the same access to information. There is an incredible wealth of information available and with a two-way connection of some kind (i.e., not just an e-reader) great opportunities to work with others around the world to learn and advance our knowledge.

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About Michael R. Frank*

Birthplace: Ft. Knox, Kentucky. Raised in Murphysboro, Illinois
Current residence: Tucson, Arizona
Education: BS Biology, MS Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois; PhD Biology, University of Denver, Denver Colorado
Websites I check every day: news.google.com, radioparadise.com
Person who inspires me most: I draw inspiration from many people for many reasons. Probably the biggest influence would be from people like Sean B. Carroll, Michio Kaku, and Neal deGrasse Tyson who are so good at taking incredibly complex concepts and making them understandable to all of us. I am also inspired by hard science fiction writers like David Brin, Kim Stanley Robinson, Gregory Benford, and Alastair Reynolds who show us not only where our curiosity and technology might take us, but also what the consequences of those paths may be.
Favorite childhood memory: Looking at trees in the neighborhood and small woods near my home with my father, who showed me the differences between the trees and how to tell them apart. Later, the same thing with insects, rocks and minerals, etc. It was the start of my interest in science.
Next travel destination (work or pleasure): No particular plans at the moment. Just looking forward to the new semester.
When was the last time you laughed? Why? Earlier this evening, watching my son (a high-school senior) watch “Blazing Saddles” for the first time. His reactions were as entertaining as the movie.
Favorite books: The Making of the Fittest (DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution) by Sean B. Carroll and This is Biology by Ernst Mayr (non-fiction). For fiction, if you ask me five times I would probably give you five different answers depending on my mood and what I am reading at the moment. Right now I am reading David Brin’s Existence. The structure of the book reminds me of John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar combined with the augmented reality of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition.
Favorite music: Radiohead, Patti Smith, Neil Young, The Decembrists.
Your favorite quote or motto: “In science, ‘fact’ can only mean ‘confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.’ I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.” – Stephen Jay Gould. “Before I came here I was confused about this subject. Having listened to your lecture I am still confused, but on a higher level.” – Enrico Fermi

* I would like to make it clear that the answers I have provided to your questions are solely my opinions and are not the official position of Vail Unified School District or Empire High School.

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