For 11 years, a creative, successful program in La Crosse has been helping English language learners (ELLs) improve their science achievement while having fun and learning more about American culture at the same time.
Back in 2004, says Rob Tyvoll, supervisor of academic programs and staff development for the district, "we wanted to try to find a way to improve science achievement for our ELL students. We had noticed, particularly in middle school, that ELL students often struggled with science terminology."
An overnight at the Sea Life Minnesota Aquarium at Mall of America has been part of the Science Adventures curriculum. Photograph by Rosie Argento, licensed through Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.
A group in the district including Tyvoll, Longfellow Middle School science teacher Tim Sprain, and others felt strongly that the best language learning often happened "when the language could be learned in the actual firsthand environment."
So, with the district paying staff salaries and Title III funding everything else, La Crosse created a program, Science Adventures, which now serves more than 100 students, grades 4-10, every summer. They spend three weeks doing hands-on activities and labs, with a rich slate of science-related field trips.
Some grades go on extended trips for as long as a week, to places like the Badlands and Yellowstone National Park.
"We're talking about many kids who don't ordinarily have the opportunity to travel very far from home or to engage in these kinds of experiences, these field trips, etc., where we take them on location to learn about different topics," Tyvoll says.
Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center in Lanesboro, Minnesota is one of the traditional destinations for the program. Photograph: Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center.
The cross-country trips have grown in importance after educators noticed the incredible impact on the students.
"Not only do they get to discover the science pieces, they get to discover the country — see what it means to stay in a hotel, eat in restaurants, order off the menu, take care of their own laundry, practice skills in terms of their own personal responsibility."
Both the hands-on nature and the relaxed feel of the summer class seem to boost learning, he says. Pre- and post-tests on science concepts and related vocabulary show strong improvement.
Tyvoll has one big message for educators in other districts: "There are possibilities that deserve to be explored with Title III," and the people to contact to have those conversations are the DPI's Bilingual/ESL Program staff.
Tyvoll says La Crosse owes "a debt of gratitude to DPI" for being "nothing but supportive in helping us to find ways to ... make it work."
DPI Education Specialist Tolu Sanabria, (608) 267-9235, has been La Crosse's primary contact. She thinks the project is impressive in "leveling the playing field even more, by providing those American cultural experiences that the ELL students might not otherwise have. That is something that really impressed me. It's beyond the 'book learning' to work with the whole child."