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  • Those who can do can also teach, and with improved results

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2010
Gary Boas, Contributing Editor,

“Kids know what’s up. Ninety percent of middle- and high-school science teachers have never had to solve an honest-to-god science problem using the tools of science,” Dr. Samuel C. Silverstein told me. He is a professor of physiology and medicine at Columbia University in New York. “Without that sort of experience, most of them are simply repeating what the textbook says. Kids know immediately who’s authentic and who’s not.”

Silverstein runs the Summer Research Program for Science Teachers at Columbia, which operates under the auspices of the National Science Foundation. He started it in 1990 with the idea that experience in the actual practice of science will improve the quality of science teaching and, in turn, lead to an increase in student interest and achievement. Then, as now, there was concern about US students performing less well in science, technology, engineering and math than students in other economically advanced countries.

Mentoring the teachers

Every year, the program accepts 10 to 13 middle- and high-school science teachers and matches them with Columbia University faculty members working in fields that interest the teachers. The university scientists agree to mentor the teachers, who become active members of the labs. For 16 weeks over two summers, the teachers read up on the latest research in their chosen fields and, importantly, participate in hands-on experiments. In addition, they assemble for a day out of every week for a variety of professional development exercises.

A recent study showed that the participation of science teachers in a summer research program at Columbia University correlates with improved test performance for their students. The authors of the study suggest that this is due largely to the hands-on laboratory experience the teachers gained in the program. Shown here is Staceyann Hood-Collins, a science teacher at Teachers Preparatory High School in Brooklyn and a recent participant in the program.

Immersing themselves in a research environment can provide teachers with a new perspective when they return to the classroom. Program participants have reported that the stress of adapting to the labs – of absorbing seemingly overwhelming amounts of information in short periods of time – helps them to better appreciate their students’ difficulties. The experience also teaches them that they don’t need to know everything, Silverstein explained. It gives them the confidence to say to a student, “That’s a good question. I don’t really know the answer, but let’s see how we can find it.”

In addition, the teachers have introduced to their classrooms a number of new constructivist educational practices. Ninety-six percent of those who participated in or completed the program in 2004 and 2005 upped the number of hands-on classroom activities and/or implemented new laboratory exercises, for example. Eighty-three percent introduced new technologies in their classes, such as chromatography and micropipettes.

And now there’s quantitative evidence that training teachers in a laboratory environment contributes to improved academic performance for their students. To earn a high school diploma in New York state, students must pass five standardized Regents exams, one of which must be in science – in biology, for example (or “Living Environment,” to use Regents terminology). In the Oct. 16, 2009, issue of Science, Silverstein and colleagues reported on the pass rates of program participants’ students.

They found that, in the year before participants’ entry into the program, 45.7 percent of their students passed a Regents science exam. This number was essentially the same as for students of nonparticipants. By the third and fourth years after the teachers’ entry, though, their students’ average science exam pass rates were 10.1 percent higher than those of the students of nonparticipating teachers.

The study’s authors believe that the success of the program is due largely to the laboratory experience gained by the teachers. They are treated as colleagues in the research groups – tasked with addressing contemporary real-world scientific problems by working independently and thinking creatively to solve them. They grow both professionally and personally as a result, acquiring new skills and knowledge and achieving the confidence to impart these to their students, and helping them learn how to tackle problems similarly.

Stretching the students’ minds in these ways and challenging them to engage in solving problems independently and creatively are the real goals of the program. Indeed, Silverstein said, the most important take-home lesson from the Science study may be that low-performing schools don’t have to be low performing. “Before, you could say, ‘Well, this is the best these kids can be expected to do.’ We now know, though, that is simply not true.”

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