MSD science coordination highlighted at management conference
Posted on 02/11/2016

The McMinnville School District takes a comprehensive approach to STEM education, coordinating science learning across the district with the FOSS curriculum and the Science Experience program outside the classroom.  FOSS (Full Option Science System) is a K-8 research-based science curriculum that was developed at the University of California at Berkeley. The instruction depends on inquiry-based, hands-on learning.

Practically speaking, hands-on learning requires physical objects for students to handle, and part of the success of MSD’s district-wide initiative is due to coordinating the physical part of the learning process.

“My job is to manage the FOSS science kits and Science Experience materials for K-5,” said Michelle Barff, district science secretary.  “I stock them, arrange the delivery of them to classrooms, clean them when the project is over, and re-equip them for the next use.”

Barff works out of the warehouse at Patton Middle School, surrounded by butterfly gardens, fish nets, worm farms, assorted beakers and all kinds of science paraphernalia.

“The point of hands-on learning is to make it stick,” says Barff.  “When kids see a tadpole go through its changes in the pond unit, they understand the concept of a life cycle in way that’s really different than when they just read about it in a book.”

Managing the science kits across the district is unusual, according to the Berkeley FOSS staff, which works with school districts all across the country.

“The FOSS development team was blown away by how we coordinate the kits and the out-of-classroom experiences across the district,” said Barff.  “Apparently, most districts, especially small districts, leave management and restocking to individual teachers, which means the kits usually end up with a very short life span.

“By taking this approach, we give all our kids the same opportunity to observe insects in their classrooms before going to Miller Woods and observing insects in their natural habitats or learning about friction and motion with the skateboard project at Evergreen.”

Barff has been asked to write articles for the FOSS newsletter in the past, and this year, she was invited to an all-expenses-paid trip to Berkeley, California to speak at the FOSS conference in the UC Berkeley Lawrence Hall of Science and appear on a panel of experts.

“I really just walked them through the process of what I do and how I do it so they could see it was possible,” she said.  “I love what I do.  It’s fun to go out to the schools with the new projects for the classrooms.  Because we do these projects for every class in every grade, the kids remember me from year to year. They’re always excited when they see me come in and will call out:  ‘What critters are you bringing us this time?’”