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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Connecting with Experts in the Real World: Educators Learn to Teach Science From the Pros

Several programs across the U.S. provide novice science teachers with the skillset and resources they need to be effective instructors in the classroom.
Diane Demee-Benoit
Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

The Exploratiorium's Teacher Institute in San Francisco brings new teachers into a community of learners, provides face-to-face experiences, pairs mentors with mentees for long-term, in-school support, and offers a growing collection of resources online.

Credit: The Exporatorium

Imagine having to teach middle-school science when the last science course you took was in high school. For many K-8 teachers this is an everyday reality. New teachers often lack science content knowledge and are inexperienced in developing and implementing lesson plans that connect curriculum to standards. For them, teaching science can be an intimidating proposition. Because of this situation, students often spend little class time on science -- sometimes only twenty minutes a week.

What is the result? By high school, students who have had little early exposure to science rarely choose to pursue careers that depend on an understanding of science and technology. Even more alarming is the fact that many grow up to be undereducated about important health and science issues, such as medical technology, the loss of biological diversity, and global climate change.

Thankfully, the public understanding of science is part of the core mission for many science centers, zoos and aquaria, botanical gardens, and natural history museums. These institutions, collectively known as informal science centers, are taking a leadership role in ensuring that students get quality instruction in the sciences. Perhaps the most exciting programs coming out of these institutions are initiatives related to the professional development of new teachers (or teachers new to teaching science). These programs mentor novice science teachers in inquiry-based approaches to science learning. They also provide ongoing support and access to experts in various scientific disciplines.

The Exploratorium

One of the nation's best programs takes place at San Francisco's Exploratorium museum. Linda Shore, director of the Exploratorium's Teacher Institute, explains the conceptual design of their new-teacher-induction program. "Beginning teachers are immediately introduced into an established community of exemplary science teachers who themselves are part of a professional community of learners at the Exploratorium," she says. A network of experienced teachers -- Institute alumni -- serve as classroom coaches and mentors, providing expertise that complements that available from Exploratorium staff. The program moves beginning teachers through materials management, student discipline, diversity issues, and parental relations in the first year, to questions of student learning and teaching strategies by the start of the second year, according to Shore.

This program also provides leadership and growth opportunities for experienced and retired science teachers so that they become effective mentors. Prospective mentors must attend a three-week Summer Teacher Leadership Seminar. The seminar helps participants: (1) refine their abilities to reflect, critique, and coach; (2) plan for topic areas such as science materials and curriculum management, as well as organizational survival skills; (3) learn a structure for initiating relationships with novice teachers; (4) assemble exemplary lessons, units, and materials to prepare for curriculum-planning sessions; and (5) work directly with beginning teachers at the Summer Institute to build and/or strengthen existing mentor-novice relationships.

An especially effective exercise for mentors is one that asks them to write an essay reflecting on their first year as a teacher, which, for many mentors was more than twenty years ago. Mentors then relive the trauma and triumphs of their early years by sharing their essays with one another in a group setting. At the end of the institute, essays are compiled and shared with new teachers.

While the essay exercise is the most memorable activity for many mentors, the training is multifaceted. "With the Exploratorium staff, we work to establish what we think the needs of the new teacher are: time management, classroom setup, etc.," explains mentor and coach Victoria Brady. "Then we make a manual that outlines what we feel we want to communicate to the new teacher and various ways to do it." Recent refinements to this process include curriculum support for novice teachers and descriptions of ways to navigate through the administrative maze. "Having to develop curriculum anew really helps us become organized in our approach," says Brady. "Many of us have been teaching for years, before there was so much technology. Now we have a reason to renew our lessons and add things that we might not have in the lesson."

Sue Quan, in her third year of teaching and one of Brady's mentees, is thrilled to be immersed in an environment with other science teachers and scientists. "The value of informal science centers is that they give teachers the opportunity to talk to experts in a supportive environment," says Quan. "These are people I can go to to get my questions answered, and if they don't know the answers, we work together to find them." Rather than being directed to search for one right answer, Quan feels that she is encouraged by her Exploratorium colleagues to think about many possible answers, to be creative, and to approach problem-solving in a variety of ways.

Developing long-term, sustained relationships with teachers is the goal of most science centers, and Exploratorium mentors also help forge this bond. "I have a continuing responsibility for my novice teachers for two years," says Brady. By encouraging sharing between mentors and new teachers, among new teachers, and with the Exploratorium's scientific staff, the program helps build a community of people who teach science. It's a community that now includes over 1,000 teachers who have been through the institute and who publish lesson plans and post questions on the Teacher Institute Web site. "The Web is essentially our newsletter and the way we keep in touch," explains Brady. "It's a password-protected place for 1,000 teachers to share ideas that came from a common experience at the Exploratorium."

While the benefits to the novice teacher of having well-prepared mentors and coaches are evident in the Exploratorium's model, there are also significant benefits to the experienced teacher-mentor. Modesto Tamez, coordinator of the Mentor Program, explains the emotional and practical benefits of being a mentor. "You go through an evolution in being a teacher," he says. "First there is the struggle as a new teacher, then you reach a plateau in your career when you may be at a professional crossroads."

At that point, some veteran teachers may ask themselves if they really want to continue in the profession. Others may want to give back or validate what they've done in their careers. They want evidence that they are good teachers. "As a mentor or coach, when you teach another teacher you become a better teacher yourself," says Tamez. "It makes you reflect on your own practice, on how you organize and think about a science unit." Tamez finds working with new teachers invigorating because it is a two-way street. "I share my techniques with them and they bring new ideas that I then incorporate into my own teaching," he says.

The Teacher Resource Center at the New England Aquarium in Boston provides a place where novice teachers, experienced teachers, and the aquarium's educators and scientists interact.

Credit: New England Aquarium

The New England Aquarium

The importance of the "two-way street" is a theme that carries across institutions. At Boston's New England Aquarium, Joel Rubin runs a popular Teacher Resource Center (TRC). Established in 1987, the TRC is a place where novice teachers, experienced teachers, and the aquarium's educators and scientists can interact in a collegial environment.

After a decade as a teacher, Joel has spent the last nine years at the aquarium mentoring teachers on a daily basis and brokering relationships between teachers and aquarium staff. "There's a lot of reciprocity in the relationship between aquarium staff and teachers," says Rubin. "Teachers keep us informed about what's going on in schools, which in turn helps keep our education programs relevant." The aquarium learns things from teachers that are well worth emulating, not only in its children's classes but in all its programs and exhibits, aimed as they are at advancing the public's understanding of and increasing its involvement in aquatic conservation and research.

One of Joel's outstanding mentees, Nancy Mullane, is in her first year as science specialist for James Otis School in East Boston. Although she's been a teacher for ten years, she is new to teaching science. When she heard about the TRC, she made a beeline to it for materials and expert advice. Rubin cultivated her interest and convinced her to take the aquarium's Teacher Sabbatical program, which seeks to develop a cadre of lead environmental science teachers for the Boston Public Schools. In this program the aquarium and experts from other environmental agencies provide real-life science and technology experiences behind the scenes at the aquarium in salt-marsh and beach environments and even on research ships in Boston harbor.

As a result of the program, Mullane was offered a summer internship by the aquarium's water quality specialist, Susan Goodridge, which involved collecting and analyzing water samples, interfacing with animal trainers, and working on the aquarium's database. Working side-by-side with technical and veterinary staff, Mullane has experienced firsthand how science and technology are used to care for the aquarium's valuable living collection. "Back in school, I'll tell my students about predator and prey, about relationships between animals, why fish school, survival of the fittest, and what places like the aquarium are doing to save endangered species and habitats," she says. "Now I have real stories and experiences that fill in my own knowledge about science. Where else could I meet and work with real science experts?"

At Philadelphia's Franklin Institute Science Museum, an Online Fellowship Program provides technical and writing support, as well as an opportunity for teachers to collaborate with peers on the development of Web-based resources.

Credit: Franklin Institute

The Franklin Institute

The Franklin Institute: Another noteworthy example of mentoring from science center staff is the Online Fellows Program at The Franklin Institute (TFI), a science museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The program provides technical and writing support as well as an opportunity for teachers to collaborate with their peers on the development of Web-based resources. Explains Karen Elinich, TFI director of educational technology programs, "Our intent was to form an ongoing relationship with educators, to create an online community of collaborative interest, to push the state of their art, and help these teachers develop leadership voices in the online education community."

After an initial face-to-face meeting at TFI to meet one another and set forth the scope of their work, teachers and staff then collaborate online. Since the beginning of the 1998-99 school year, TFI's Web site, which averages over 100,000 hits a day, has featured the resulting Wired@School work, providing links to fellows' school Web sites.

The benefits that fellows gain from this collaboration are considerable, as the comments of Gail Watson of John F. Pattie Elementary West in Dumfries, Virginia, indicate. "The inspiration I received from the Franklin Institute was to take a harder look at science and the ways students could be led to learn it through deeper inquiry," says Watson. "Journey II the Center of the Earth, the science Web site that we made at school, was truly a masterpiece compared to anything else I have done." Even without a physical presence to influence teachers at my school, she explains, TFI had the effect of encouraging three fifth-grade teachers to work together to create a multi-intelligence, multi-discipline lesson in geology, represented through extensive student work online. "The resulting project was far beyond any Web site we would have done without the help of TFI," notes Watson, "and way beyond most Web sites on geology."

Mentoring, one of the key functions that makes Wired@School work as well as it does, happens on several levels, according to TFI's Elinich. One pertains to straightforward technical assistance. "Staff members on the educational technology team at The Franklin Institute provide technical support for the teachers," she says. "If a teacher wants to learn how to use a new Web technology, the appropriate team member facilitates that teacher's adoption of the new skill."

On a second level, TFI also provides moral support, fostering new confidence and opportunities to develop leadership voices in the online community. These voices, says Elinich, are first heard just within the small group of TFI Online Fellows but soon move to a wider audience on the Web, at conferences, and in publications. "Both levels of mentorship," she notes, "happen on a regular basis, as often as everyday."

Yet another level of mentoring arises within the group of fellows itself. Over the course of their year together, certain teachers emerge as leaders in specific areas, and other fellows begin to look to them for support with certain needs. "For example, one teacher was perceived as a mentor for Web design concerns," says Elinich. "His colleagues looked to him as being ahead of the group in using design aesthetics in Web-based educational resources." Other teachers became informal leaders in the use of Java script. "This level of mentorship may ultimately become more meaningful," says Elinich, "because it may be more sustainable, if the time comes when the Franklin Institute is no longer the moderator for the group."

There is good reason to see the mentoring that the TFI Online Fellows program engenders as having just that kind of self-sustaining potential. The process is already working so well that it has created new mentors among its members. "I feel that TFI has provided me with the opportunity to assume the role of mentor myself, for colleagues at school, students, and teachers globally, who are using our TFI features as a tool to integrate technology into their classroom curriculum," says Karen Walkowiak, at Holy Redeemer Catholic School in Kanata, Ontario, Canada. "I have been able to provide inservice support for students and staff, as well as communicate regularly with teachers around the world."

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