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Assessing How Distance Learning for Teachers Can Enable Inquiry Science in Rural Classrooms

Jeffrey Osborn


Background: The geographic and cultural isolation of rural teachers and particularly teachers working in low socioeconomic regions makes professional development in math and science difficult. The expanding development of distance learning and interactive online connectivity of rural teachers with institutes of higher education now provides a potential medium by which these rural educators can receive ongoing science education and professional connections with active scientific research. A new hands-on, inquiry based curriculum for middle school teacher professional development in physical science originally titled Hands-On Virtual Physics and under IERI is called Newton's Universe has been developed and field tested in Appalachia by the University of Kentucky.

Purpose: In this study, we will determine the impact of teacher professional development by distance learning in inquiry based science on middle school student achievement in physics.

Intervention: During the 5 year study, 60 middle school teachers and approximately 12,000 students will be evaluated both before and after teachers participate in 4 consecutive summer professional development courses that are designed to teach concepts of temperature and heat, temperature and heat with technology, forces and motion, and forces and motion using technology. Students will be evaluated for content knowledge and process skills development both before and after teachers participate in the Newton's Universe courses taught entirely using online, asynchronous distance learning techniques. Students of participant teachers will be assessed in the fall and spring of each year both before and after teachers have undergone the professional development.

Setting: All participant schools in this study are derived from isolated, low socioeconomic rural school districts across the Appalachian mountain regions of eastern Kentucky, western Virginia and eastern Tennessee. The project started January 1, 2005 and is expected to end December 30, 2010.

Research Design: The unique aspects of this study include: a) the large student population that will be studied, b) the unique pre/post professional development design that is cumulative in individual teachers over 5 years, c) the study of changes in student achievement following teacher professional development, d) the impact on student learning of science by the use of technology in the classroom for isolated rural teachers and e) the long term affect of improved middle school science education on student interest in upper level science courses.

The students (approximately 12,000) of middle school teachers (60) are being studied from across a broad geographic region of Appalachia. Students of control teachers are also being identically evaluated from teachers that did not participate in the online distance learning courses. All control populations are derived from the same geographic regions.

Effective student and teacher assessment instruments have been designed and field tested in year 1 of the project. These instruments include: a) the evaluation of teacher understanding of the concepts of physics before and after online course participation, b) the study of student understanding of physics before and after teacher course participation, c) the student development of scientific process skills before and after teacher course participation. Control teachers and students will be evaluated identically to experimental subjects.

Findings: The initial cohorts of 40 teachers are presently enrolled in the first course on temperature and heat. A full cohort of 15 control teachers has been pre-assessed. The post-course teacher assessment will be conducted at the end of the summer of 2006. All students from these teachers will be pre-assessed in September/October of 2006. The ongoing student assessments will continue throughout the '06-'07 academic year as well as throughout the remainder of the study. All teachers and school district administrators have fully agreed to the 5 year study participation.

Bradley, K.D. and Sampson, S.O. (In Press). Chapter 2. Utilizing the Rasch Model in the Construction of Science Assessments: The Process of Measurement, Feedback, Reflection and Change. In Applications of Rasch measurement in Science; JAM Press.

Babcock, J. and Bradley, K.D. (2005). Identifying Factors that Impact Teachers Sustained Integration of Instructional Technology. Presentation at Midwest Educational Research Association annual meeting, Columbus, OH.

Bradley, K.D. and Sampson, S.O. (2005). Validating an Assessment through Rasch techniques: The process of measurement, feedback, reflection and change. Presentation at Midwest Educational Research Association annual meeting, Columbus, OH.

Rebecca L. McNall & Joseph LaMothe (2005). Virtual Inquiry-based Physics for Teachers: Temperature and Heat; Presentation at the Mid Atlantic Association for Science Teacher Education annual meeting; Breaks, VA, October 28 & 29, 2005.

You can learn more about this project by visiting

Complete information on Newton's Universe can be found at: