Sue Stapleton is professor of chemistry and biological sciences and dean of the graduate college at Western Michigan University (WMU). Renee Schwartz is a professor of biological sciences and a faculty member in WMU’s Mallinson Institute for Science Education. In 2010, WMU received an HHMI grant to enable pre-service teachers to participate in a summer research program, followed by a teaching practicum.
What’s wrong with the way we’re teaching science to K-12 students now?
Sue: Teaching science is about more than giving a laundry list of facts to students in a classroom. It’s about the excitement of discovery. It’s about learning to ask good questions and making advances in the field. Everything that’s in a textbook came from somebody who asked a question, made an observation, and searched for answers. Teachers need to be able to bring that enthusiasm to the classroom.
How can research experiences help them do that?
Renee: Research helps students understand the scientific community. We see them make the transition from seeing science as a set of facts and seeing scientists as people who know everything into something very different. They learn to see science as a process that’s about asking good questions and figuring out how to answer them. That changes the way they think about how to teach science.
Sue: It helps students think of themselves as part of the larger community of scientists. We want to create scientists who choose the profession of teaching.
How do you help them make that leap from research to teaching?
Renee: We describe the teaching practicum portion of the program, which follows the 10-week summer research, as “closing the loop.” It requires them to translate the lessons they learned during their research for use in the classroom. They plan lessons that provide opportunities for students to generate questions, determine appropriate methods to answer those questions, collect and analyze data, and communicate and defend their results with evidence.
Can you give some examples?
Renee: For a chemistry lesson, the teachers had their students conduct a series of tests to understand physical and chemical properties of different substances as well as acid and base reactions. They investigated the properties of unknowns and presented their findings, supported by at least three pieces of evidence. For a biology lesson, students observed the regeneration of planaria [a type of flatworm] as part of a study of cell theory. They cut planaria on day one and observed changes over two weeks.
Do these types of projects stick with students beyond the pop quiz?
Sue: Absolutely. Studies have shown that for students of any age, retention of knowledge is greater when the student is actively engaged in the process. If they retain that knowledge longer, then they can see how these concepts relate to other things in their lives. And the more that happens, the longer they stay interested in science.