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Louisiana biology professor Ann Findley trains high school teachers and offers on-site support to build a culture of science at their schools.
That was Rachelle Haroldson’s experience. A year after she completed BrainU’s partner program for high school science teachers, her students were dissecting a sheep brain, exploring how it compared structurally with a human brain. And after her students assembled model neurons from beads and string as they studied neural signaling, she had them investigate questions like: What is a drug? If you take a drug, what does it do to your body? The students learned how alcohol affects decision making in the frontal lobes and how marijuana mimics endogenous cannabinoids. “When they thought about their brain as a muscle and that they were weakening it [with drugs], that seemed to have a profound impact on them,” Haroldson recalls.
Honing Science Skills
To help students learn science through inquiry, teachers must first understand how scientific inquiry works. But many are simply not up to speed. They may lack research experience or—especially in middle schools—they may be teaching a subject for which they weren’t trained, says developmental biologist Barbara Wakimoto of the University of Washington in Seattle.
Scientists, like Wakimoto, can play an important role offering the research experience and inquiry-focused approach. K–12 science education requires a multifaceted strategy that should involve scientists as well as preservice and in-service training, says David Asai, HHMI’s undergraduate science education program director. “The community of scientists, in particular, can provide excellent ways for in-service teachers to build more inquiry into their teaching. In-service teachers can be the principal partners with scientists, who can help develop those tools, and they can be a huge resource for future teachers.”
Wakimoto and two colleagues run an intensive four-week summer life sciences teaching institute for 20 Washington State K–8 teachers. They focus on upper elementary and middle school teachers because, unlike high school teachers who see their students for one period a day, these teachers “are with students long enough to get them excited about science,” Wakimoto says.
Wakimoto and program manager Helen Buttemer show teachers how to create simple inquiry-based lessons with readily available materials—for example, testing the adhesive powers of slug slime, studying lentil seed germination, or observing fruit fly mating rituals. They train teachers to walk students through a scientific investigation using a tool called an inquiry board. The teacher records ideas on an eight-section poster board as the class brainstorms a question, the variables to test, the controls, the experimental setup, and the predicted outcome. After the study is completed, the class tabulates results, looking for patterns, and answers the original question.
Wakimoto’s colleagues follow up by visiting each participating teacher’s home school, often bringing equipment to lend. “When we go back to the classrooms, we find these inquiry boards all over the state,” she says.
High school teachers need the hands-on experience as well. In Louisiana, for example, many teachers are certified to teach high school biology or chemistry with just a smattering of college courses in the subject. They “have a working knowledge of the discipline, but they have no lab skills and no research experience as an undergraduate with respect to how science is really done,” says Ann Findley, a biology professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM).
Photo: Misty Keasler