Susan Riechert: Center Stage in the State’s Education System Overhaul

One evening in 1995, Susan Riechert was rummaging around in a small, dark, forgotten closet in Hesler Hall at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, when she happened upon a large wooden trunk. She wiped off the dust atop and opened it. Inside, she found live animal traps most likely to be used on some unlucky mice in one of her colleague’s experiments.

Rather than closing the box and moving on, this box unleashed an idea that may help overhaul the entire state of Tennessee’s education system.

The box birthed the ecology and evolutionary biology professor’s “Biology in a Box” program, and has since bestowed upon her countless awards and an appointment this year to the Governor’s Advisory Council to improve the state’s education system. Riechert’s most recent award was given on Dec. 2 at the National Science Teachers Association Conference in Nashville. She was given the Tennessee Science Teachers Association Higher Education Science Educator of the Year Award. The prestigious award given by the state’s major science education organization recognizes outstanding science teachers across the state.

Biology in a Box consists of boxes which house scientific materials such as preserved specimens, instruments, audio and visual clips, etc., with corresponding exercises that integrates both science and mathematics through all grade levels. The program is currently employed in 80 school systems across the state and has been successful in not only cutting across content, but attracting students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines by incorporating a hands-on, inquiry-based approach to teach the wonders of the living world, as well as introducing the scientific methods and math skills used to understand that world.

“Teachers will say it is their best resource. Part of it is because the concept is accurate and is laid out to them. Each exercise is designed so that the teacher facilitates student active learning rather than just dispensing information to passive learners. The teacher can explore a concept with her students and thus learn along with them,” explained Riechert.

Riechert said that if every school system had Biology in a Box or something of its ilk, they would be better off. And she has data to prove it. Standardized test scores more than tripled for students using the program.

It is this success and revolutionary way of teaching that thrust Riechert center stage into the revamping of the state education system. This year, Riechert was appointed by Gov. Phil Bredesen to his STEM Advisory Council that will guide the state’s efforts to improve STEM education. The council’s goal is to help promote the state’s aggressive and comprehensive public education reform plan, which is part of the federal “Race to the Top” initiative. Designed to spur improvements in state and local district K-12 education, Race to the Top includes a competitive grant program for states in which Tennessee was one of two states selected as initial recipients. Tennessee has received $500 million to implement comprehensive school reform plans in the next four years.

Riechert has a lot of ideas to share. She does not believe in memorizing material and detests “teaching to the test” in which students are asked to recite facts. The testing method Riechert is experimenting with involves students coming up with their own questions. Her style may be nontraditional, but her goal is to light a fire for learning inside students that she says has been extinguished for all too long.

For the past decade and a half, with her wooden boxes, one classroom at a time, Riechert has been trying to improve education. Now she has a seat at the table and a voice that will be heard by stakeholders at a crucial time for the state.

“We are below the nation in the standards we have set for our students in science and math,” she said. “For the $500 million we accepted in the Race to the Top funds, the state agreed to bring our student performance requirements up to those applied nationally.”

Raising standards is only part of the solution, said Riechert. Another large part is community support and involvement. The STEM Advisory Council is discussing models for “platform” high schools which will connect students to local universities and industry and prepare them for careers where math, science and technology are vitally important. The first two schools are slated to open in Nashville and Knoxville.

Another part of the solution is addressing the severe teacher shortage. A 2009 study by the Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) predicted that if nothing changed by the fall of 2013, 40 percent of current positions could be open.

Riechert is on top of it. She is co-director of VolsTeach, a program which converts UT’s current teacher training program in mathematics and science from a five-year to a four-year program and integrates field experiences into all four years. The goal is to address the state’s science and math teacher shortage by recruiting students into the math and science profession by getting them in the classroom early. The program is in its first year and has 60 students enrolled. A comparable program at Louisiana State University launched with just 17 students.

“Just to give you an example of how short we are on physics teachers, all the higher education programs in the entire state only produced three physics teachers this year,” she said.

What educators have been doing isn’t working, Riechert said, adding that she believes the time is right to change. And she’s hopeful the right people are listening.

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