After a decade teaching high school and middle school science, Wendy Bramlett had taught every topic in the book. No joke.
“I used to think you had to cover every concept in the textbook,” says Bramlett, a science teacher at Tuscaloosa Magnet Middle School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Her students would dutifully regurgitate the information on tests.
Laboratories, when she could afford them, were low-tech affairs. She taught mitosis by giving her students pipe cleaners to model chromosomes in a dividing cell. Often she just did what she calls “pencil and paper” labs, in which students plodded through problems in a workbook. “For the students it was boring. Science wasn’t one of their favorite subjects,” Bramlett says.
“It really wasn’t fun for me either,” she adds.
Then Bramlett got some training. She enrolled in the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative, an extensive, state-run teacher training program for science and math teachers aimed at boosting student performance. Bramlett took advantage of every aspect of the program: She completed a two-week workshop two summers in a row, connected with a science-teaching mentor, and began borrowing modern laboratory equipment and teaching her students how to use it. Her teaching—and her students’ learning—turned around.
Today only about one-third of eighth graders in the United States show proficiency in math and science. Several standard-setting groups have taken action to boost U.S. performance in science and math. Last summer the National Research Council outlined new science teaching standards that lean heavily on inquiry-based learning. The College Board has overhauled the Advanced Placement Biology curriculum to emphasize scientific inquiry and reduce the emphasis on rote memorization. And 45 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, a state-led initiative that raises the bar for K–12 mathematics education. These efforts are built on an education research base that says students understand science better by doing it and they learn math best by applying it to real-world problems.
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Evolution of a Textbook
Educators and funders are revamping preparation of prospective teachers (called preservice training) to help them learn how to teach in these new and more effective ways (see “Calling All Teachers,” November 2011 HHMI Bulletin). But what about the nation’s 250,000 middle and high school science and math teachers already in classrooms, and the 1.5 million elementary school teachers who teach some science and math? They’re going to have to raise their game.
For that they’ll need good professional development. It’s no easy task, however, for trainers to change teachers’ practices enough to improve student learning, says Deb Felix, senior program officer for HHMI’s precollege science education initiatives. Good programs help teachers acquire a firm grasp of modern scientific techniques and the teaching methods they need to enable their students to learn through inquiry. They also create opportunities for teachers to test and refine new lessons and carve out ample time for training, mentoring, and peer support—often despite tight and shrinking training budgets (see sidebar, “STEM Teaching 2.0”). A mix of large nonprofit agencies, universities, states, and school districts are incorporating these tested approaches. The work they’re doing is beginning to pay off.
Lots of Options, Not Enough Time
U.S. schools invest 1 to 12 percent of their budgets on staff professional development, according to Learning Forward, a trade group for teacher trainers. This spending creates a huge market for teacher professional development, and there is no shortage of organizations that offer it. School districts often develop and run their own programs, sometimes with advice from companies and independent consultants. Universities, colleges, medical schools, and museums hold summer workshops and develop teaching modules. Some companies sponsor programs for teachers, such as Intel’s Thinking with Technology course. Nonprofit organizations, such as WestEd and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), offer workshops and online programs for teachers, some of them supported by federal funds. “Anybody can get into this mix who can sell it,” says Julie Luft, a science education researcher at the University of Georgia and former director of research at NSTA.
Still, most teachers receive far less training than they need, and not by choice. More than half of U.S. teachers are offered at most two days of paid professional development per year from their districts, according to a large 2003–2004 survey by the U.S. Department of Education. More than half of science teachers surveyed by NSTA in 2009 said they wanted more. In many school districts, professional development is limited to a single workshop. “They get a day right before the school year begins,” Felix points out. These workshops are too short to be of much use, yet districts keep doing them, she says.
Seeing Students Benefit
When done right, however, professional development can make a real difference for students. Carla C. Johnson, of the University of Cincinnati, and two colleagues tracked students at a middle school where all science and math teachers received comprehensive professional development, including monthly in-school sessions in which trainers modeled effective instruction and let teachers practice it. Their students were compared with students at a middle school in the same district with no such program. After two years of instruction by these newly trained science teachers, Johnson’s team gave the seventh-graders a 29-point test to gauge scientific knowledge and reasoning. They scored 50 percent better than students of untrained teachers, Johnson and colleagues reported in 2007 in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching. What’s more, the effects lasted. In 10th grade, 88 percent of the students who had learned from the specially trained middle school teachers passed the Ohio Graduation Test on their first try, compared with a 34 percent pass rate among students of the control teachers, Johnson’s team reported in 2010 in School Science and Mathematics.
Two summers of training in an inquiry-based neuroscience curriculum was a big help for middle school science teachers in Minnesota. When science educator Gillian Roehrig and neuroscientist Jan Dubinsky of the University of Minnesota tested the impact of the curriculum, called BrainU, they found that the teachers adopted the methods immediately after the first year, Dubinsky reported at the 2011 conference of the Association for Science Teacher Education. However, “after the second year it’s really transformative in terms of how they’re using inquiry in the classroom,” Roehrig says.
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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).
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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.
Teaching through inquiry poses special challenges to elementary school teachers.
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.
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Although Lesson Study keeps the focus on student learning, where it belongs, it’s expensive because substitutes must cover for the teachers who are observing, says Roehrig. As co-director of Minnesota’s Math and Science Teacher Partnership, a statewide professional development program for K–12 science and math teachers, Roehrig instead fosters what educators call “professional learning communities.” Science and math teachers are allowed paid time to meet at the school after hours to discuss what worked in the classroom and how they can improve next time.
Teams of science teachers can also help develop an inquiry-based curriculum. Ninety-six middle school science teachers from Loudoun County Public Schools in Northern Virginia collaborated with faculty at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania, over five years to develop an inquiry-based middle school science curriculum. When that HHMI-funded program ended in 2008, about a dozen of the teachers began meeting each summer to update and expand the curriculum, which now underlies middle school science instruction countywide, and to design HHMI-funded training programs for their colleagues around the district. Now “the teachers own the program,” says Odette Scovel, the district’s K–12 science supervisor.
What does it take to upgrade a STEM teacher’s abilities?
Help for Rookies
Peer support is particularly important for new teachers, who struggle to get the hang of content and lesson plans as well as issues that more experienced teachers have mastered, such as how to manage their classrooms and deal with student misbehavior, says Francis Eberle, president of NSTA. In the past, fledgling teachers were often tossed into the classroom to sink or swim. That still happens, but today more school districts try to ease their transition into the job, a process educators call “induction.”
It’s important that induction for new science teachers focus on teaching science, and not simply teaching, according to research by Luft and Roehrig. Teachers in science-specific induction programs use more inquiry-based lessons than those in general induction programs or those who’ve had no induction at all, the two reported in 2003 in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching. And teaching habits acquired early often last. Those first years are “when teachers are really forming who they’re going to be as teachers,” Roehrig says.
And beginning science teachers still need strong support during their second year, according to Luft. Otherwise they’re apt to revert to the easier but less effective methods that rely on lectures and textbooks, her group reported in 2011 in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching.
One common strategy is to appoint as a mentor a more experienced teacher who covers the same subject and grade level. NSTA and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics have called for more intensive induction programs in which competent, experienced science and math teachers mentor novices. But “there are actually very few” good induction programs, says NSTA’s Eberle.
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Roehrig runs one of them, an induction program for middle and high school STEM teachers in Minnesota. Mentors and new teachers in the Teacher Induction Network can hold video chats using Skype-like technology, share lesson plans via Google Docs, or take part in virtual classroom observation. Rookies videotape themselves teaching, post the video, and then peers and mentors use video annotation technology to comment on the teacher’s interactions with the students. “It’s as good as, if not better than, being in a classroom,” Roehrig says. And it makes effective mentoring possible even when the beginning science teachers work in northern Minnesota, hundreds of miles from her university’s Minneapolis campus.
With budgets tight everywhere, district training programs have to do more with less. Anita O’Neill supervises professional development programs in science, technology, and engineering for Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, a district with 200 schools and about 600 teachers at each grade level. In 2006, she and project manager Mary Doran Brown began building a district-wide cadre of teacher leaders to help train their elementary school peers to teach science better—and they are moving it online.
They recruited prospective teacher leaders from 90 of the district’s 131 elementary schools—not all of them, as they had hoped. Then, with HHMI support, they trained those teachers to help colleagues at their respective schools teach inquiry-based science lessons. At some elementary schools, the teacher leaders got their colleagues to take students to annual “inquiry conferences” at a local college. There, the students presented a science project to their peers and fielded questions from them, just as practicing scientists do at a scientific conference. The program lasted four years until the district’s budget tightened in 2010.
To affordably reach the district’s throng of elementary school teachers, O’Neill’s team enlisted its teacher leaders to help move the training online. At a summer workshop, teacher leaders from elementary and middle schools learned to videotape a lesson, edit the video, and then post it as an example of effective teaching. Ultimately, O’Neill’s team wants an interactive website for all K–12 teachers that allows them to review the district’s science, technology, and engineering curriculum and plan lessons or learn inquiry-based teaching in line with national standards. “Our vision is a professional learning community,” O’Neill says.
To change science and math teaching nationwide, though, there’s really no substitute for investment. And no state has invested as much as Alabama. Thanks to an enthusiastic state superintendent and a powerful booster group that included leaders of the state’s high-tech businesses, Alabama has invested up to $46 million per year in the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI), says Steve Ricks, who directs the program at the state’s education department. AMSTI employs 850 teacher trainers to train up to 8,500 K–12 science and math teachers each year, offering them subject-specific, grade-specific mentoring. Since 1999 they’ve trained half the STEM teachers in the state, Ricks says. Teachers come for two-week workshops for two consecutive summers. AMSTI also employs 300 master science or master math teachers who advise and mentor teachers and even co-teach if the mentees need a hand. AMSTI operates 11 regional 35,000-square-foot warehouses, where workers run forklifts to help sort bins of laboratory materials and equipment designated for math and science teachers.
The state’s investment is paying off in better student performance, according to eight years of external evaluations. For example, Alabama students improved more in math than those in all but one other state, as judged by an internationally recognized test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. “The state has seen that if you really want students to compete, they need top-notch math and science skills,” says Ricks.
Wendy Bramlett, who used AMSTI to raise her game, is a fan. “My whole way of teaching changed,” she says. “I went from a lecture class to no lecture and all hands on,” she says. Her students’ performance has improved—92 percent scored at the top level on the state science exam last year. And she hears something else she never heard in her first years of teaching. “I have children tell me, ‘Science is my favorite subject.’”