STEMscopes soars in Texas schools

Rice University’s electronic science curriculum proves most popular in state

Rice University’s STEMscopes, an electronic science curriculum for Texas students, has become a popular choice for teachers – much to the delight of its creators.

STEMscopes was one of a dozen digital curricula approved last summer by the Texas State Board of Education as supplemental material to older science textbooks for students in grades 5-8.

“Our initial projections were that we would capture 20 percent of market share, enough to recuperate our costs and continue research and development,” said Reid Whitaker, the director of Rice Online Curriculum K-12, part of the Center for Technology in Teaching and Learning. “But in fact, we’ve become the most widely adopted supplemental science program in the state of Texas. Capturing nearly 50 percent of the market share allows us to invest more money into broadening our content and grade levels.”

RICE UNIVERSITY Members of a science class at the Houston Independent School District's Almeda Elementary School work through an exercise described in STEMscopes, Rice University's electronic science curriculum. STEMscopes is the most popular choice among Texas schools for state-approved supplemental material for grades 5-8

More than 500,000 students and 40,000 Texas teachers are using STEMscopes for all or part of their science curricula this year.

Whitaker said the competition for adoption in Texas classrooms has been stiff: Rice’s program was the only one among the dozen approved that was developed by a nonprofit organization. Other programs are offered by such traditional publishing houses as Prentice Hall, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill as well as smaller companies.

Whitaker attributed STEMscopes’ popularity to its adherence to state curriculum standards, its versatility and its low cost. “It was created in Texas for Texas teachers, with the help of teachers and Rice University researchers who reviewed the science content,” he said.

School districts sign up for two years and pay $2.90-$5.90 per student for use of the program for 12 months, which amounts to a little more than half the cost of a consumable workbook.

For that, teachers get a program that fits both their needs and their technical capabilities. “Some companies took a forward leap to the bleeding edge – meaning they tried to use a platform that required the most advanced hardware,” Whitaker said. But the beauty of STEMscopes is its scalability: It works equally as well for one-computer classrooms as it does for technology-rich classrooms or labs.

STEMscopes is poised for aggressive growth, Whitaker said. The program already covers the core science curriculum for K-8 students, and new components expected to come online in the next year will cover chemistry, physics and biology. “After this year, we truly will have a K-12 curriculum,” he said. “Many of our current district users have indicated they want the high school curriculum once it’s ready. Having a continuity of approach from kindergarten through high school will be a real asset.”

STEMscopes is already used in markets beyond Texas – a few districts in California and North Dakota are onboard, as are schools in Honduras and Guatemala – and the plan is to expand internationally. Whitaker said the strategy will be responsive to new national core standards for science education due out early next year, and the Rice team plans to be ready.

A future version of STEMscopes will make greater use of tablets and smartphones. “It may be more like a mobile app, where teachers and students can use the program exclusively on tablets without printing out one sheet of paper,” Whitaker said.

“I believe digital resources will continue to make learning more engaging and access to resources more affordable, a key element in the decision by Texas to move in this direction,” he said.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.