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VAI partners with Grand Rapids school district

December 3, 2014
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VAI partners with Grand Rapids school district
Science teachers with Grand Rapids Public Schools sit in an immersion class at the Van Andel Education Institute as part of a professional development program. Courtesy VAI

The “scientists on the hill” are partnering with public school educators to change how they teach science to students.

Representatives from the Van Andel Education Institute, or VAEI, part of the Van Andel Institute, and Grand Rapids Public Schools, or GRPS, said today that they will partner to allow more than 90 science teachers within the school district to participate in a professional development program, leveraging VAEI’s approach to inquiry-driven teaching.

Science instruction

Teachers from sixth through 12th grade within the district will take part in VAEI’s professional development program — Community of Practice Model for Scientific Inquiry and Instruction — which leverages a new teaching model known as QPOE2, or question, prediction, observation, explanation and evaluation. The inquiry-based approach engages students in scientific practice and ultimately helps educators teach students to think and act like scientists. 

Officials said the partnership will change how science is taught, not what is taught.

Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of GRPS, said the partnership is a wonderful opportunity for teachers and is aligned with the GRPS Transformation Plan.

“Part of our Transformation Plan is to become the best district, and in order to do that, we have to have all of our teachers and principals with the top training and for our teachers to be able to train here at Van Andel Education Institute,” Neal said. “This is really hands on. I don’t believe as a school system we need to do everything. We have resources in the community and people who are willing to partner with us and help our teachers, so we can be the best. We just need to reach out and access that.”

Teacher development

The initial professional development session launched this morning, which provided an immersion experience for teachers to experience the teaching model from the perspective of their students.

The educators will then participate in two follow-up workshops in February and April to focus on integrating the skills learned to transform existing lesson plans to an inquiry-based approach. Additional training is anticipated to take place throughout the 2015-2016 academic school year.

Jim Nicolette, associate director of the Science Academy at VAEI, said while Van Andel Research Institute is widely known for its leading biomedical research, there is a lack of awareness of the science education program at VAEI.

“This is all about enhancing the way students learn science. It doesn’t change what is being taught, but it does change how it is being taught,” Nicolette said. “We are thrilled to join with GRPS and very grateful of the generous endowment left by Jay and Betty Van Andel — we are able to meet the needs of students and educators in our community.”

Jonathan Harper, science curriculum specialist at GRPS, said the district has a tremendous asset in its educators and is excited for the partnership with VAEI.

“This partnership really does, again, allow our teachers not to necessarily change what they teach, but to really truly enhance how they teach and provide our students with an opportunity to really do science, to engage in science, in a way that hopefully builds excitement in their lives for science in the future as well,” Harper said.

Local connection

The initial discussion between the two organizations began a couple years ago when Nicolette contacted the district, based on his former role working there, according to Neal.

“We started the conversation shortly after our Transformation Plan,” Neal said. “Jim reached out to the us and the district, and the partnership really came from that.”

Public school partners

The approximately 90 teachers from GRPS benefitting from the program will join more than 500 teachers from 23 districts and three intermediate school districts across the region who will train with the VAEI model.

VAEI is working with the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, or OAISD, and a number of school districts in Allegan, Kent and other counties, facilitating similar training for educators, according to Nicolette.

“The difference is with OAISD, we are actually forming an online network,” Nicolette said. “One of the things we hope to do over time is pull the teachers in Grand Rapids into that network, so they have the opportunity to share lessons they are developing and instructional strategies around the model with teachers across West Michigan.” 

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