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UNCW Receives $216,000 NC QUEST Grant for ‘Writing in Science, Science in Writing’ Program

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Young student writing at a desk

Educators are seeking ways to help students improve their writing skills so that they are better positioned for future success in college and in the workplace. UNCW plans to meet this need through the development of a program to support the effective teaching of informational writing about science at the elementary school level. The program will be developed by the Watson College of Education and the College of Arts and Sciences, in partnership with Pender County Schools.

The University of North Carolina General Administration (UNC GA) is funding the program titled “Writing in Science, Science in Writing” through a North Carolina Quality Educators through Staff Development and Training (NC QUEST) grant in the amount of $216,788. The grant was awarded to UNCW in March.

Development of the program will get underway this spring, and the training of teachers in three Pender County elementary schools will begin during the 2015-16 school year. Teacher leaders, instructional coaches and administrators will collaborate with UNCW faculty to create a professional development program that aids teachers in enhancing their writing instruction while engaging young students in scientific discovery.

Debbie Powell, the grant’s project director and associate professor in the Language and Literacy Education graduate program at the Watson College, said students are accustomed to writing text messages and posting information on social media but their formal writing skills are sorely lacking. She cited findings from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress Writing Assessment Report (2012) that show only 27 percent of eighth and twelfth graders are proficient in writing.

Powell has conducted extensive research on national and international standards for writing over the past decade. She has also developed research-based tools to enhance writing instruction and assessment, and worked with dozens of teachers to test these tools in the classroom.

“Effective writing skills can be taught, but writing is also an art that needs to be developed,” Powell said. “That’s why the scientific discovery aspect of this program is so important.”

Growth and motivation in writing occurs when there are authentic audiences and purposes which science can provide, she said.

Geology professor Patricia Kelley and Beth Metcalf, director of Elementary Student Learning and Title I for Pender County Schools, are co-project directors.

Kelley will facilitate access to science engagements and resources. She will also co-teach lessons on inquiry science and scientific writing and analysis. She seeks to engage all students using inquiry-based methods and collaborative forms of applied learning. Kelley’s research focuses on the evolution and paleoecology of Coastal Plain molluscs. In 2014, Kelley received the highest honor in the nation for a professor, the U.S. Professors of the Year award sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. She also received a prestigious UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2014, in part for “facilitating thought and understanding in an energetic and enthusiastic classroom environment.”

Metcalf’s role is to ensure that the program adheres to the school district curriculum. She will also encourage the active participation of Pender County administrators, teacher leaders, teachers and elementary school age children in the program.

UNCW faculty members serving as project managers include:

  • Brad Walker, associate professor of Language and Literacy Education;
  • Chuck Jurich, assistant professor of Language and Literacy Education;
  • Kathy Fox, professor of Language and Literacy Education and department chair of Early Childhood, Elementary, Middle, Literacy and Special Education;
  • Lynn Sikma, assistant professor in WCE’s Elementary Education program;
  • Amy Garrett Dikkers, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership; and
  • Roger Shew, lecturer in the geography and geology and environmental studies departments.

In a letter to NC QUEST and UNC General Administration, Metcalf and Saysha Carter, chief academic officer for Pender County Schools, explained that Pender County has a long-standing collaborative relationship with the Watson College, and is enthusiastic about collaborating on the NC QUEST grant because the grant’s goals are directly aligned to the goals of the school district’s strategic plan.

Writing and science have been identified as Pender County’s next core areas of focus in the district’s continuous improvement efforts. The school district’s three- to -five-year goal “is to continue to provide rich learning experiences in a balanced literacy model, with a focus on the authentic application of writing process through content specific learning,” the educators wrote. This makes partnering with UNCW on the “Writing in Science, Science in Writing” program a particularly good fit, they said.

Pender County Schools has been a partnership district since WCE created the national award-winning Professional Development System (PDS) partnership more than 20 years ago. In addition to collaborating on student intern placements and professional development, the university and the district have partnered on a number of special programs and initiatives in recent years including an i3 Reading Recovery Grant, a Summer Writing Conference and The First Years of Teaching Support Program.

Powell said the project directors and project managers will take the needs of struggling learners into account when developing the professional development model.

“Writing is a powerful learning tool for all students, but explicit strategies, modeling, work with vocabulary, text structure and sentence combining are necessary for struggling learners to be successful,” she said.

During the first phase of the program, teacher-leaders’ classrooms will serve as demonstration sites where other teachers can observe and learn. The “Writing in Science, Science in Writing” program will be expanded to all elementary school classrooms in Pender County over the next three years.  Ultimately, the goal is to scale the program and introduce it in other districts, using Pender County Schools as a conduit for future success.