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To build their laboratory skills and confidence, each summer Findley and her colleagues invite eight Louisiana high school teachers and up to 60 of their students for an HHMI-sponsored month-long summer science workshop. The teachers and students work together through four successive one-week investigations, each in a different field of biology. “You might be tagging DNA with fluorescent dyes this week, and next week you may be out seining in the bayou to get the biomass of life in an aquatic environment,” says Brenda Grover, science chair at Richwood High School in Monroe and a workshop veteran. “Then you might move to geography, looking at satellite views of our area.”
Teachers learn best how to lead inquiry-based lessons by working through them, according to research on professional development. Findley and her colleagues advise teachers privately about how to turn workshop exercises into lessons that will benefit their students. They also challenge teachers to prepare supplies and solutions for an exercise and discuss how to troubleshoot it.
During the school year, the ULM team lends financially strapped high schools trunks with PCR machines, microscopes, centrifuges, and other equipment and supplies. Findley and her students act as science ambassadors to the 20 participating schools, modeling a culture of science for teachers and their students. Undergraduate biology majors help less-experienced teachers run lab investigations. Findley and biology graduate students assist with school science days, encourage kids to enter science fairs, and help students envision getting a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degree, even if no one in their family has gone to college.
The ULM workshop “gets teachers excited about teaching science,” Grover says. Students, too. The program has trained more than 500 students since it launched in 2000. Ninety-five percent of them go to college, according to years of follow-up surveys, and many major in science—no small accomplishment in an area with many schools like Richwood High School, where fewer than half of the students’ parents attended college and about 90 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. “You look at the poverty rate, and the area surrounding the school, and there’s nothing in the community [for the kids] to look forward to,” Grover says. “So if you find something to light their fire, man you just want to keep that fire going.”
Peer coaching helps teachers shift their focus from what teachers are teaching to what students are learning. An HHMI-funded program run by Occidental College in Los Angeles uses peer coaching in a method called Lesson Study. The college runs summer workshops in biology, chemistry, and physics for middle and high school teachers in the area, and they employ two science educators who visit schools and coach teachers throughout the school year.
Robert de Groot is one of those science educators. He supervises Lesson Study at Jerry D. Holland Middle School in Baldwin Park, California, where six science teachers take turns teaching one of three inquiry-based science lessons. While one teaches, the other teachers and de Groot observe the students’ reactions. They note how well kids follow lab procedures, collect and report data, grasp scientific concepts, and use scientific vocabulary. Afterward, the teachers meet, discuss how the lesson can be improved, and offer tips to their colleague. Then the teachers switch roles; another teacher in the group teaches the revised lesson, and his or her classroom becomes the teaching laboratory.
Chris Craney, a professor of chemistry at Occidental who supervises their science outreach program, reported in the Journal of Chemical Education in 1996 that the program increases student interest in science as well as chemistry and biology teachers’ knowledge of scientific topics. And inquiry-based laboratories taught by the newly trained teachers significantly improved students’ understanding of chemistry, biology, and physics concepts, according to the Occidental team’s unpublished assessments of 3,000 students before and after the labs.