Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

Preparing for Careers in Cutting-Edge Science

on November 10, 2008

Students have always had the opportunity to take science classes such as biology, physics and chemistry. Some of these courses are required for graduation at certain high schools. However, how do students prepare for careers in specialized sciences such as forensics and epidemiology?

These occupations are expected to grow 36 percent and 34 percent, respectively, by 2014. Without the tools for such labs in traditional high schools, an alternative is necessary. One company is raising the learning curve by introducing an online science module with niche topics for students interested in specialized scientific material.

The National Network of Digital Schools (NNDS) distributes Cutting Edge Science courses, a product of Lincoln Interactive curriculum. These science courses include biotechnology, epidemiology, forensics, emerging genetics, sports medicine and stem cell research.

A demand for science

Since technology advancements are occurring on a daily basis, NNDS has incorporated the latest science innovations into online courses through Lincoln Interactive. In addition to Cutting Edge Science and general science classes, Lincoln Interactive provides online education to more than 50 schools across the country.

"We wanted to look at emerging sciences -- things that are changing quickly and be able to respond to those changes quickly in teaching the classes," said Fred Miller, communications coordinator at NNDS. "They picked out some of the things that I like to think of as 'ripped from the headlines.' We have all of the standard stuff, but we also have these exciting new things."

NNSD is hoping to grab the attention of students who may want a career in a niche field such as sports medicine, said Bryan Bown, director of educational services for NNDS. Since most traditional schools are unable to provide such curriculum, Lincoln Interactive can give students the option to learn such material.

"They'll be able to see if they actually enjoy the course or that's something they do want to move forward to once they do get to college," Bown said.

This fall is the first semester that Cutting Edge Science classes will be offered in high schools.

Online education

When NNDS began providing online curriculum in 2005, it was originally with one school, Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School. Today, Lincoln Interactive courses -- including the Cutting Edge Science classes -- are available internationally to public school districts, charter schools, parochial schools and cyber-schools.

"Because we are providing curriculum to a lot of students, we can justify the expense of developing this curriculum for a large market," Miller said. "Whereas a single school district, how many kids would they have who want to take stem cell research? One or two kids. But in a cyber-school with 7,500 students, we're going to have a fair number of students in a class like that. The way that the cyber-school works makes it perfect for this small niche kind of class that a traditional school cannot afford to offer."

Traditional high schools may offer Cutting Edge Science classes for credit as a supplemental course since most schools don't have the resources for a stem cell research or biotechnology course. Cyber-charter schools supply these courses as elective material.

"We have other school districts that use Lincoln Interactive classes because they realize it's an advantage for their students to be able to take these other classes that they don't offer," Miller said.

Although the online tools are not the same as brick-and-mortar science labs, Bown said that students are receiving a rigorous education. While taking a Cutting Edge Science course, students utilize homemade videos, discussion forums, PowerPoint presentations and Micromedia Flash experiments.

"They can see what they did right and what they did wrong, but they can't actually touch and feel," Bown said. "We're not here to take over -- we're here to enhance the curriculum for any school."

Students who want to take a Cutting Edge Science course for high school credit must attend a school that offers the material to students. Otherwise, students can pay to take a course for leisure.

Cutting Edge Science

Lincoln Interactive is rolling out six new classes this fall, all subjects on the forefront of science. Courses in biotechnology, epidemiology, forensics, emerging genetics, sports medicine and stem cell research expose students to scientific advancements that are happening in the real world. These lessons are for high school students who have already completed one year of biology.

Cutting Edge Science classes consist of 20 lessons over nine weeks of learning modules. A typical semester course is worth .5 credits for the duration of 18 weeks. But the new science courses are shorter, giving students the option not to take a full semester of science if it's not the appropriate subject for them.

"Those students who are really interested in these top-notch cutting-edge sciences that are in the news today, they can take a nine-week course, and if they feel, 'Oh, it's not for me to take,' then they haven't wasted a whole year in taking a specific course," Bown said.

The biotechnology course shows students how technology and biology are used in agriculture, food science and medicine. The epidemiology module touches on subjects such as biological sampling, survey research and geographic information systems. In the forensics course, students will learn to do research that most people only ever watch on "CSI." The emerging genetics module exposes students to genetics concepts and cloning. As a part of the sports medicine class, students will learn how to diagnose, treat and prevent sports injuries. And the stem cell research module will teach students about the development of the human body.

"We're hoping to get these courses out to all students who are interested," Bown said. "Many schools don't have these specific courses out there, so it draws that student in -- that highly motivated student who may be interested in moving on in a career."

Keeping it cutting edge

Not only are students given the resources that meet the latest technology standards, but they're using consumable text books. These are books that the students get to keep, so they can write in them, make notes and refer back to the information after completing the course.

"We've gone through a textbook company called Quantum to write our books," Bown said. "And they've gone out to the specific areas across the country to gain people who are really in-depth with the research to actually write the books."

Additionally, Lincoln Interactive curriculum is audited by The University of Pittsburgh's Tri-State Area School Study Council in order to ensure the rigor and quality of course content. Bown said that the courses go through a three-tiered endorsement process: the Council makes suggestions for improvement; the courses are launched after alterations are made according to suggestions; and parents, students and teachers provide feedback and courses are revamped again.

Not only are the courses tested in three tiers, but Lincoln Interactive courses are also designed to teach in three tiers. Each lesson will encompass key concepts, reinforcement and enrichment. The key concepts will cover the main components of the lesson, using PowerPoint presentations, the textbook and animated Web sites. The reinforcement part is additional activities and curriculum to help students memorize the key concepts. And the enrichment component is additional information that reaches beyond the course for students who want to learn supplemental, non-required material.

"The people who have seen this curriculum are just blown away by it because this is great stuff," Miller said.

The dollar signs

NNDS was set up as a charitable foundation to provide management services and curriculum in an online forum. However, sustaining academic excellence comes with a price tag.

"Nobody wanted to make a profit on this," Miller said. "We wanted to put a profit back in the community, back into the organizations and the people. The way that the funding works in Pennsylvania is the money follows the kid from the school district."

There isn't a standard cost for online education, and the payment system isn't simple. It varies from state to state and within school districts. For the Cutting Edge Science example, NNDS charges $225 plus materials per student for one semester course. Cutting Edge Science classes cost $150 since they are nine-week courses. But, individuals typically don't pay NNDS -- schools do. So, if a traditional school wanted to provide one Lincoln Interactive class to five students, the school district will pay $1,125 to NNDS.

North Hills High School

Until the Cutting Edge Science courses are rolled out this fall, only seven students have had the chance to take advantage of Lincoln Interactive's newest offerings. North Hills High School, a traditional high school in Pittsburgh, Pa., conducted a pilot program last spring, recruiting a few students to take the stem cell research course.

Jerry White, science department curriculum leader and gifted education specialist at the high school, said that the students were given the option to include the class on their transcript since these individuals were already enrolled in a full schedule.

"They liked the fact that they are no specific due dates," White said. "The only condition is that they finish the course within one year of when they enrolled in it. They can do the course when they have time for it and there aren't any hard and fast due dates."

NHHS chose to participate in the pilot program because a former student-teacher at the school is the online stem cell research teacher. Principal Patrick Mannarino said the school will offer all six Cutting Edge Science classes this fall because of the success with the stem-cell research course.

"We're trying to create as many opportunities for our students as we can," he said. "I think the program is successful because we have people like Jerry who are going to work with our kids. He's going to guide them and that's what makes the kids be successful because they have a mentor in the school."

However, despite the amount of students given the opportunity to take -- and pass -- these courses, White said that without the laboratory component, the online classes are the "second best option." The problem is enrolling more students and finding a teacher to implement a new class. Until a greater interest for these science classes exists, White said the curriculum is comparable.

"It is a nice supplement for those areas where we do have some students who are interested but not a critical mass," he said. "It's a nice opportunity for students to explore their interest when we don't have a comparable offering. I think a hybrid is really nice."

As occupations in fields such as forensics and epidemiology continue to grow, more opportunities for learners must be brought from cutting edge to center stage.

*This story is from Converge magazine's Summer 2008 issue.

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