The Development of the Science and Religion in Schools Project and the Importance of IT
You will have read in other contributions how the “Science and Religion in Schools Project” (SRSP) came to be and the philosophy and ideas that surrounded it. Suffice it to say in this contribution that the time was right for the project to develop. This article will discuss the process that we went through to develop the three aspects of the materials that were finally published in the summer of 2006 for students aged 11-16 years, 16-19 years and in a parallel project for students aged 7-11 years. These three aspects were the teachers’ guide, the CD-ROM of support materials and the website – though, in the words of advice to the lost traveller, we didn’t start from there!
We hope that the UK project will encourage others from around the world to embark on their own project, inspired by ours, but producing materials unique and tailored to the students in their own countries, pertinent to their student’s needs. We do hope, however, that knowing about the processes we went through and reading of some of our trials, will offer some guidance to those other potential projects.
The first task was to gather the team that was to develop the project. There were three important elements in this team. A core group who would oversee and manage the project, a team of writers who would produce the materials and an academic oversight group to ensure rigorous quality assurance. The co-directors of the project were well positioned to choose this group. Martin Rogers was able, from his previous role as director of the Farmington Fellows project [www.farmington.ac.uk], to source the teachers, and John Hedley-Brooke knew the key academics who would be willing to support the project. A list of these key people can be found in the credits section of the SRSP website [www.srsp.net] and the academic board, also on the website, reads like a Who’s Who of the Science and Religion world in the UK. The core team included the editors, administrators and directors and it was agreed early on that whilst the project ran a small ‘real’ office the project development would happen virtually.
In developing the materials, we wanted to provide teachers with a comprehensive toolkit of resources for teaching but were aware of the great variety of schools that could be using the materials. In the UK all students are required to study the same programme of study for science, and we were keen that the materials could support some elements of this, but there are over 150 different programmes of study for Religious Education. We were also aware that some teachers might dedicate only 1 or 2 lessons to the science and religion debate, whilst others might wish to give it more time either because of personal interest or because it appeared on their examination syllabus. So we aimed to produce a ‘resource and not a course’ a smorgasbord for the teachers to choose from. A list of topics was drawn up for the 11-16 and the 16-19 groups. There was some overlap as topics could be studied at developing cognitive levels by students of differing ages. We were very ambitious in our coverage and 29 units of work were produced for the 11-16 age group and 23 for the 16-19 group a total of 52 units – a mammoth task. A full list of these topics can be seen on the website [www.srsp.net]
A system was developed so that writers could submit drafts of their materials electronically to the editors and that subsequent drafts of the materials could be accessed by the writer, editor, and academic advisor from the website. This also meant that progress through the system could be monitored by the project management and a strict Quality Assurance system could be operated. Writers were also encouraged to think beyond text and to develop materials for the increasing available technologies to be found in the classrooms of the teachers and students who would be using the materials. So video, audio, web-based, animated and image-based materials were also developed by the support team, in collaboration with the writers. Writers also needed to be conscious of the knowledge levels of the teachers in school in terms of both the scientific and the religious content of the materials and extensive support materials were included with each unit, alongside teaching plans, and resources for use in the classroom differentiated for students of varying academic ability.
Once the materials had been written, edited, and checked by the academic team, a trail school tested the materials on their students. The subsequent feedback from these students and their teachers was given to the writers who would then amend and adapt the materials in light of this, perhaps most important, feedback.
The chart below shows the progress of a unit of work through the system from conception to output:
It soon became apparent that we were producing a tremendous quantity of materials both in textual and non-textual format, and so we needed to consider how these materials were to be produced in a cost-effective way. Whilst a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation meant we were in the privileged position of not having to fund the development from sales, we still needed to cover the costs of production and hoped to turn a small profit in order to continue to amend and update the materials as necessary.
Two technologies were available to aid us in effective production. The first of these was to place all the support materials for the units onto a single CD-ROM. This meant that many hundreds of pages of materials, alongside quality images, web references, and audio and video files could be provided. In fact, the secondary project for all 52 units runs into the equivalent of several thousands of pages – a veritable encyclopaedia on a single CD-ROM. The second technology was that of “print on demand”. Whilst our ambitions were high for the book, we did not know the quantity in which it would sell, especially as one only book and CD-ROM were needed for each school as the materials were designed to be networked onto the school’s computer system and so be available for any teacher in the school. Approaches to a traditional publisher resulted in a minimum order of many hundreds of copies and at a price which we felt was prohibitive to many schools, especially those we hoped to encourage into teaching these topics for the first time. Print on demand was an excellent solution allowing us to sell books in small quantities for incredible value for money. The secondary guide and resource CD-ROM is being sold for only 15 GBP [30 USD, 20 EUR] and the primary for only 12.50 GBP [25 USD, 17 EUR]. As well as the advantages of cost print, on demand also means that amendments and developments can be made without high resultant cost and without making all the existing copies redundant.
The CD-ROM was designed to look and feel link a web-based system with the audio and video embedded in the structure of the CD-ROM. Whilst materials could be used directly from the CD-ROM, either as printed sheets in the classroom or projected in the classroom on the screen or using the electronic whiteboard, the expectation was the materials would be loaded onto the school network. This would allow teachers, and students, to access the materials from anywhere in the school and, depending on the schools access policy and use of a Virtual Network anywhere where there was access to the network†. Thus upgrades to the materials can be downloaded from the SRSP website and installed on top of the existing data. This makes corrections and upgrades simple, and very cost effective, for both the project and the user. The first batch of CD-ROMs did indeed have an error where some images failed to load in some presentational materials. This was corrected rapidly and those few users who had purchased CD-ROMs with this error could easily upload the corrected versions from the subscriber’s section of the website. If you would like to know more about this process, please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org where samples of the units can also be found.
As well as the 52 units we also developed some additional resources for the CD-ROM. These included interviews with some individuals interested in the debate, links to the excellent counterbalance website [www.counterbalance.org], a timeline of science and religion, sections on Genesis, on Hume and a glossary and bibliography as well as an electronic version of the teachers’ guide.
We learned as we developed the project. The first iteration of the virtual project was mostly successful, but many of our writers were used to a more traditional relationship between themselves and their editor. This was where materials would be submitted on paper to the editor who would respond in a similar fashion and where the materials produced would only be in a textual format. This meant that a lot of work was needed with the writers of the materials for 11-16 year olds in the first few months of the virtual project. We started the second iteration, the materials for the 16-19 year olds, with a 2 day conference for the writers, editors and support staff so that relationships could be established and working systems and parameters defined and shared before the writers disappeared into the shadows of the virtual project. This meant that this second iteration was much smoother than the first.
We also wanted to develop a project which had some degree of uniformity and consistency but which also allowed the individual style and creativity of the writer to come through with their units; whilst we had developed a series of proformas, we did not stress strongly the necessity of using these. This meant developing during the project a further Quality Assurance stage in which a teacher was engaged to re-work the units to ensure that there was this degree of consistency. In hindsight, we would have built this stage into the project at the onset, again we would have started from a different place! This additional stage did delay the launch of the materials but also added a real strength and quality so that all the materials had a common feel and yet offered a wide variety of teaching and learning opportunities.
In the Spring of 2005, we obtained a supplementary grant from the John Templeton Foundation to develop materials for students aged 7 to 11, suitable for UK primary education – this was to be called the Primary Science and Religion in Schools Project [PSRSP]. As this was a relatively small project, a single writer was commissioned, and we utilised the lessons we had learnt from the SRSP project in both the procedural and structural systems and so were able to produce 10 units of work for the this group in just 6 months with the materials being ready for production at the same time as the SRSP units.
We have now been selling the materials for about a year. It is worth repeating that each school only needs ONE copy of the materials for all its pupils. This means that the Science and Religion in Schools Project is already in hundreds of schools across the UK and thus effecting the teaching and learning, in this important subject (its importance is discussed in other articles) of tens of thousands of young people across the United Kingdom. We have also sold a significant number of copies to people outside of the UK and hope that this will inspire them, not to copy or translate our materials, but to learn from our project and implement a programme in their own country. If you are reading this outside of the UK and you are interested in this idea, please contact us at email@example.com
We intend that the income from selling the books will be used to update the materials in this ever changing world of scientific and theological challenges. It is heartening to receive positive reviews and feedback on the materials [see www.srsp.net] and to consider how we can adapt and develop the materials. The UK education system in secondary schools [ages 11-19] is beginning a major change in the way it considers learning. There is a move away from subject focus onto a more cross-curricular and meta-cognitive approach to learning. The Science and Religion in Schools project is a wonderful model for this new approach to learning. We are at the beginning of an exciting time.
† If school operated a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) then the materials could be accessed by students off campus.