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Looking for a better way to teach students

René McCormick and Gene, her husband of 29 years, at the College of Science commencement ceremony Dec. 14
René McCormick and Gene, her husband of 29 years, at the College of Science commencement ceremony Dec. 14

René McCormick is on a mission. The mission is improving science education in the United States by changing the way it's taught. While there is a renewed emphasis on the need to better educate American middle and high school kids in science, McCormick has been tackling the problem head-on for over 25 years.

McCormick, who lives in Southlake with husband Gene, was guest speaker for the UT Arlington College of Science Fall 2009 commencement ceremony Dec. 14. She is a UT Arlington alumnus (BS in Biology, 1983; MA in Interdisciplinary Science, 2007) and is Director of Standards and Quality for the National Math and Science Initiative, which was created to address the decline in the number of U.S. students who are prepared for challenging college coursework in science and math.

"We know more science than we've ever known and teach less science than we've ever taught," she said. "It is well documented that America is falling behind with regard to the number of science majors our universities are graduating and that we are no longer the global leaders with regard to innovation we once were."

A big part of the problem, McCormick says, is public schools' emphasis on state-mandated exams, which are designed to measure academic progress and are required for advancement to the next grade level. Critics contend that far too much time is consumed with preparation for the tests, to the detriment of course curriculum. Students are learning just enough to pass the test, some believe, and not enough to truly equip them for college-level coursework.

"Public school science is focused on the wrong thing -- a state test that is too weak based on a state curriculum that is too weak," McCormick said. "I often speak of the 'continual strive for mediocrity'. Over the past 20 years, if students perform poorly, the test must have been too hard, so let's soften it or lower the percentage score that is deemed 'passing'.

"What we should do better is expect more from students, especially in middle and high school. Students are far more capable than most educators realize. We need to truly prepare students for higher education."

McCormick knew fairly early she wanted to do just that. Born and raised in Grand Prairie, she attended school there before transferring to Bowie High School in Arlington her junior year. It was in high school that McCormick was inspired to pursue science.

"Why did I choose biology? Because of an inspirational Arlington ISD biology teacher named Betty McNallen," she said. "She had a love for biology that oozed from her. She made every student want to learn biology and she had a sense of humor that made learning as enjoyable as attending a comedy club."

For college, McCormick chose UT Arlington, following in the footsteps of her father, who earned a degree from what was then named Arlington State College. She majored in biology, but also fell "deeply in love" with chemistry and physics.

"I had the opportunity to ask questions that helped me weave the three together for a deeper understanding," she said. "That has served me very well over the past quarter of a century"

McCormick went to work as a teacher in Grand Prairie the day after graduating from UT Arlington in August 1983. It was at Grand Prairie High School that she became involved with the Advanced Placement program, which offers college level courses to high school students and allows them to take achievement tests to earn college credit. After a decade at GPHS, she took a job at Carroll High School in Southlake, helping to create an AP Chemistry program while working to improve the district's science curriculum. The results were exceptional.

In 2000, McCormick received the prestigious Siemens Award for outstanding AP science teaching, the Radio Shack National Teachers Award for use of technology in the science classroom and the Advanced Placement Special Recognition Award by the southwest region of the College Board. In 2001, Carroll High School posted some of the best AP Science results in the nation, with 75 students earning qualifying scores (3 or higher on the 1-5 scale) on AP exams. Among McCormick's students was her daughter Miranda, who compiled 28 AP credit hours before enrolling at UT Arlington and earning an interdisciplinary studies degree in 2007.

"At this point, AP is the only national vehicle we have and educators at all levels need to realize that far more students are capable of success in rigorous middle and high school courses," McCormick said. "Public schools need to provide more access to those courses."

McCormick was among a select few teachers nationwide teaching more than one AP discipline (Biology, Chemistry and Physics B). Her proven track record in teaching and in training others to teach AP science courses led to a job in 2001 with Advanced Placement Strategies (APS), a nonprofit group which works to improve enrollment and success in AP science classes in Texas public high schools. Eventually, APS was involved with 67 schools.

A 2007 report by the National Academy of Sciences, titled "Rising Above the Gathering Storm", highlighted the growing problem in science education in the United States. That same year, McCormick accepted an offer to work with NMSI -- created by Tom Luce with funding from ExxonMobil Corp., the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation -- to do on a national scale the kind of work she was already doing in Texas.

"René is a great out-of-the-box thinker," said Gregg Fleisher, NMSI's National Training and Incentives Program director who also worked with McCormick at APS. "I think her greatest strength is that she has incredibly high standards. The fact that she was such a successful AP teacher in three different subjects and has been able to impart her knowledge of AP science has been a fantastic boon."

The importance of NMSI's work was emphasized last week when President Barack Obama talked in a speech about the organization and its UTeach program, which allows science and math students to graduate in four years with a degree and full teaching certification. The program, which originated at UT Austin in 1997, is expanding to 20 universities nationwide, including UT Arlington. Enrollment in UTeach has nearly doubled in two years.

"(The NAS report) pointed out that the U.S. graduated more physics majors in 1957 - prior to Sputnik - than in 2004, "McCormick said. "That is just tragic! The problem is we've spent the past 25 years watering everything down. When I became a teacher, my singular goal was to prepare students for college better than I myself was prepared"

As the emphasis on better science and math education increases, McCormick has continued striving toward her goal.

"I am on a mission to affect change in the way math and science are taught in public middle and high schools, she said. "Some people have jobs while others are on a mission. I am fortunate enough to be paid as I pursue my mission."