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General formula funding – the primary state funding source for Oklahoma schools – was slashed nearly 27 percent between 2008 and 2017, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The state has gained 50,000 students during the same period, leaving school systems with overcrowded classrooms, strapped for money, and severe supply shortages.

Oklahoma teachers are struggling to find sufficient materials to teach today’s students and prepare them for the future. Teachers across the state are searching for ways to enhance learning in their classroom, often paying out of pocket for new lessons and supplies to keep their students engaged and successful.

Oklahoma’s oil and natural gas industry has a voluntarily funded program that is helping fill that gap.

“Oklahoma has standards that must be met and sometimes teachers have to look for other ways and other hands-on activities to meet these standards in their classrooms. They’re not always supplied with what they need and OERB is helping fill that gap.”

—Dr. Gayla Wright, curricula coordinator for the OERB.

In 1997, Oklahoma’s oil and natural gas industry, through the OERB, answered the requests of some state educators to create supplemental earth science curriculum that related to the vast energy production sector.

The OERB assembled a group of Oklahoma educators to develop the first energy-based curricula titled, Fossils to Fuel  in which students learn about energy sources, geology, density, matter, porosity and sound waves. Since that time, the OERB has worked with Oklahoma teachers to expand on the success of the program and now offers 9 different curricula for Kindergarten through grade 12.

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OERB’s curricula development is led by Dr. Gayla Wright, the organization’s Curricula Coordinator. Dr. Wright holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in both biology and education and a doctorate in education in curriculum and instruction. Not only does Dr. Wright have these degrees under her belt, but also the experience to make her qualified for her role as a curricula coordinator. Dr. Wright’s experience includes, being a science department chair and science coordinator for one of the state’s largest districts; a charter faculty member at the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics; served on the curricula writing committee for the Department of the Interior; and served on a committee for one of the first writings of the state Oklahoma PASS ­– the previous academic standards for the state of Oklahoma for students. Wright was asked to evaluate the OERB’s first curricula, Fossils to Fuel, she was impressed by the program and thought it was a great opportunity to extend STEM lessons to Oklahoma teachers and students. She has been involved with the OERB’s program ever since.

“What is unique about our educational programs is that it is written by Oklahoma teachers for Oklahoma teachers. They know the needs that they have in the classroom. They know what equipment they don’t have, they know what standards they need to meet,” according to Dr. Wright.

Each curriculum is written by a group of 8 -10 Oklahoma teachers and evaluated against state standards by second group of Oklahoma teachers. The curricula are then field tested in at least 25 different classrooms at various locations throughout the state. Once the program is piloted and evaluated by the teachers, the committee reviews their suggestions and revises accordingly.

Tisha DeWitt, a 4th grade science and math teacher at Sangre Ridge Elementary in Stillwater, OK, was introduced to the OERB’s program when she was asked by a colleague to field test Fossils to Fuel 2. “I just fell in love with it immediately and I wanted to know more about it. I remember writing on one of my evaluations that I wanted to see if there was any way I could be part of it because it seemed like such a neat opportunity.” DeWitt now helps develop and teach these lessons to other Oklahoma teachers.

“When we’re developing the curriculum, we work with teachers across the state that serve in various capacities in Oklahoma schools. We just brainstorm ideas to try and come up with really good curriculum that will be used throughout Oklahoma and it relates to our state. It’s so rewarding to come up with ideas that we know will get engaged our kids and get them excited.”

The free programming meets curricula standards set by the state of Oklahoma and was designed to supplement district-adopted curricula with extra emphasis in core STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math).

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“When teaching, sometimes there’s a need for teachers to expand on concepts and that’s where OERB comes in. We’re able to help the teacher to better explain some of the science and math concepts and to expand the knowledge of students by using the OERB curricula,” said Dewitt.

Along with lessons related to oil and natural gas production, each curricula teaches science, math, and language concepts that are applicable across multiple disciplines. Many teachers use the OERB curricula as a starting point to educate their students on some basic scientific and math concepts; like force of motion, porosity and viscosity, graphing, plotting and measurement.

“For example, we have an activity where kids are looking at using a water pump, containers of water, different types of tubing and different variables to see what happens when you pump water and what things can affect the flow rate of the water. We’re talking about oil in that activity but if I’m a biology teacher, I can talk about the human circulatory system and the movement of blood in the body. We can talk about capillaries, about flow rate, and about elevation. I can use the same basic concept in botany when I’m talking about xylem and phloem I’m talking about the movement of fluids up and down in plant cells. Each activity has a variety of applications and, that’s what we pride ourselves on,” states Dr. Wright.

15,000 teachers trained.

The OERB conducts several workshops throughout the state each year so that teachers can get hands-on training with the curricula. The OERB has trained almost 15,000 teachers to date.

“There aren’t many opportunities like this in the state of Oklahoma,” according to DeWitt, “We’re always looking for lessons that are engaging and that our students can easily relate to. The fact that this is all Oklahoma-based makes it really unique.”

The OERB education workshops are offered multiple times throughout the year. Educators who attend receive a $50 stipend, lesson plans and a kit of classroom materials valued from $300 to $1,100 and professional development hours.

At the workshops, teachers receive a variety of science and math equipment that can be used throughout the year and on lessons outside of OERB’s curriculum. “We want to make sure that the teachers have everything they need to teach our students. There are items in the kits that they can use for years to come. The OERB replenishes any consumable products as the teachers request them.” Teachers leave workshops with kits full of things like TI-30XS calculators, document cameras, rulers, compasses, beakers, hot plates, distillation sets, graduated cylinders, molecular model kits, viscosity tubes, Oklahoma maps, scales, hotplates, jump ropes, crayons, graph paper and more,” Dr. Wright explains.

“When teachers typically attend workshops in Oklahoma, I feel like a lot of times we go home disappointed because we’re not able to use the curriculum. It didn’t meet the needs of our classroom. We don’t always have the materials we need to do the lessons that they’ve talked about or we have to purchase more. But with OERB, everything that you get in the workshops, you can take back and immediately start using in your classroom. You leave with everything you need. The support these programs provide is incredible. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have it now.” said Dewitt.

Tisha Dewitt enjoys welcoming new teachers to the program. She explains the moment when a new teacher realizes all that they are receiving their usual response is, “It’s not what I thought it was going to be. This is so great for my kids.” Tisha also say that many teachers come in thinking that these lessons are going to be biased toward the oil and gas industry, but when they get to see these first hand, their reaction is always a positive one. Many teachers will say, “wow, these are great activities!”

Programs like the OERB are important to the future of the state of Oklahoma. Students are learning about science and technology, engineering, mathematics, learning how to do research, how to look at situations and see if there is a problem then come up with conclusions to find a solution to the problem. According to Dr. Wright, that’s what OERB lessons are designed to do.

“It’s very important that students are learning this method and this type of learning, because the jobs of tomorrow are going to more and more use science, technology, engineering and mathematics to solve problems. So students are our future. All that we can do to help them, the learning they do, the equipment and materials that we give them, whatever we can do to help schools in Oklahoma, is what we’re all about,” said Dr. Wright.

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“The OERB is using the application of science and mathematic concepts in the oil and natural gas industry, but they relate to many other industries, corporations, businesses, subjects, and disciplines In the state of Oklahoma, and in the world,” said Wright.

Dr. Wright remembers starting out as a first year teacher with a classroom of students and the challenge of getting those young minds interested and engaged. That’s why she finds so much enjoyment in what she does – providing Oklahoma teachers with really dynamic programs that excite students about learning. She has seen first hand how that translates to more qualified graduates, more gratifying careers, and a stronger state economy for us all.

“We take pride in our curricula because it’s developed by Oklahoma teachers for Oklahoma teachers. That’s a great big asset for the state of Oklahoma. Teachers know what needs to be taught in that classroom.” Wright added.

To learn more about the OERB’s educational programs visit oerbhomeroom.com.