The Story of AIMS
by Dr. Arthur Wiebe
When Fresno Pacific University established its graduate program a quarter century ago, I was appointed chair of the graduate program in mathematics and science education. My first step was to define the mission of this new program to be the training of graduate students to become proficient in mathematics and science curriculum evaluation, design and construction. Central emphasis would be placed on the development of curriculum materials and teaching methods that most effectively implemented research findings related to the learning of mathematics and science.
Next, I asked Larry Ecklund to leave his post as math consultant for Fresno County Schools to join me in this program. We devoted a majority of our time and effort to working with students, teachers, administrators, and parents at the school site because such on-site experiences brought us in direct contact with the front lines of education where it mattered most. We were convinced that it is the arena where the battle to improve mathematics and science has to be engaged and all curriculum design, content, and delivery subjected to critical testing.
Our approach was characterized by greater emphasis on active learning using manipulatives, investigations, representational models, and real-life experiences and a lesser emphasis on passive, textbook-driven learning. This approach stemmed from the research findings of Piaget and others.
During the first five years, we traveled extensively throughout California working with students and teachers over extended periods of time, testing experimental curricular materials and methods of instruction, and evaluating the results. We discovered that primary teachers felt very comfortable moving to greater and more effective use of manipulatives and real-life experiences. Most middle- and upper-grade teachers, however, were much more reluctant to leave the safe environment of the textbook for the messy, action-filled world of investigations even though they saw learning and attitude improve. They viewed manipulatives as appropriate in the primary grades but not dignified enough for use in middle and upper grades.
After repeatedly hitting this wall of resistance, Larry and I decided to change our tactics by focusing on the integration of mathematics and science using a hands-on approach. We hypothesized that middle- and upper-grade teachers would view hands-on science investigations as dignified since they mirrored what high school and college students do. Just as important, we theorized that the motivation and depth of understanding that derives from supporting abstract learning with parallel hands-on investigations and real-world applications would quickly justify switching to this approach. Little did we realize the consequences!
Meanwhile, our search of the 1970s literature turned up a paucity of integrated math/science curricular materials. Several earlier National Science Foundation (NSF) funded efforts had long since been abandoned. The realization that this void would be filled only if we set ourselves to the task of creating such materials slowly dawned on us.
We decided that we needed to create such materials in the context of the classroom. This meant involving middle- and upper-grade mathematics and science teachers from the start. The only way this could occur was with funding from the NSF. Application for funding was made in late 1980. NSF responded by funding a two-year program involving 40 teachers.
Applications to participate were so numerous and of such quality that Fresno Pacific University was requested to match the NSF grant to make it possible for 80 teachers to participate. The University’s response was positive, so 80 teachers were selected. They came from schools throughout the San Joaquin Valley.
During the first meeting in the fall of 1981, participants were introduced to pilot materials Larry and I had developed. They tested them with their students and found an enthusiastic response. It validated their own judgment that the task to which they had set themselves was worthwhile. They discovered sobering realities, however. The use of hands-on investigations required more planning, preparation, teaching, clean up, and energy. It seemed that everything argued against this new approach except that students were learning more, learning in greater depth, and enjoying it more!
Because of the demands hands-on investigations place on the teacher, the cadre spent an entire weekend discussing all the reasons why only a small percentage of teachers would respond to such a curriculum. The consensus that emerged was that such a curriculum would be accepted by no more than five per cent of the teachers. They would be those who were adventurous enough to look past these obstacles. Nevertheless, five percent of the teachers constituted a sufficient audience for the task to be worthy of everyone’s best efforts.
The next step was to organize into writing teams. To make sure that an equal emphasis was placed on science and mathematics, each team of five or six included at least two science teachers and two mathematics teachers. Attention was given to ensure an appropriate male-female balance. Teams formed around science topics of special interest in which team members had a strong background. Each science topic was then seasoned with the appropriate mathematics content.
A mathematics and science resource library was established for the project and continues to serve current Research Fellows. It has grown to contain over eleven thousand carefully selected and specialized resources. Today, it is used by undergraduate and graduate students from throughout the Central Valley, as well as the AIMS Research Fellows.
The format for the teacher’s guide was determined after lengthy discussion and is still in use today with modest modifications. Now more extensive background information is added, activities are referenced to national standards in both mathematics and science, and provision is made for investigations to be conducted at a range of levels from fully structured to open-ended.
Every third weekend during the initial two-year period, the University campus became an exciting, living laboratory of flying and floating objects, magnet and static electricity experiments, probability investigations, computer simulations, and much more. Successful investigations were written, field-tested, refined and sent through the same process repeatedly until they were ready for publication.
The first publication, Math + Science, A Solution, came off the press in 1982. By 1983, the use of AIMS had created such an impact in the local region that K–5 teachers began requesting AIMS materials for their students. Fresno Pacific University responded by providing partial scholarships for a second major effort to develop AIMS materials for these students. Following the pattern established in the first project, a cadre of K–5 teachers was recruited to participate, guided by team leaders drawn from the earlier effort. AIMS expanded to serve students in K–8.
A milestone in the history of AIMS occurred in 1986: The administration of Fresno Pacific University recognized that the rapidly expanding AIMS program had functions that were too atypical to be part of the normal University structure and would prosper only if set free. By mutual agreement, it was decided that AIMS needed to be established as an independent non-profit educational foundation that would maintain a mutually beneficial working relationship with the University. AIMS was invited to remain on campus to facilitate the exchange of faculty, facilities, resources, etc. As a result, the AIMS Education Foundation was incorporated as a California non-profit corporation in July 1986 and shortly thereafter was classified as a 501 C-3 tax-exempt entity by the Internal Revenue Service.
The teacher of teachers training program was begun in 1987 and quickly expanded under funding from the California State Department of Education. When the Foundation announced it would accept applications from school districts to host one-week AIMS workshops, the response was immediate. Shortly after, one-day, two-day, and custom workshops were added to the services provided by the AIMS Education Foundation.
The success of the AIMS program is due to the hard work and commitment of the hundreds of teachers, trainers, and co-workers who constitute the AIMS family. It is a marvelous family! Only those of us who feel its pulse, its energy, and its commitment to excellence in children’s education know what it means to belong to this family! There is no higher, no greater educational experience!
The future of AIMS is bright. AIMS will continue to build on what is today and become even more vital in the national effort to the improve student learning of mathematics and science.