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A Summer Retreat for High School Teachers


At a month-long retreat, teachers absorb new information and learn new skills, expand their network of colleagues, and take time to think about their work back home.

High school biology teachers attend the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Program every summer for much the same reason that molecular biologists attend the renowned summer programs at Woods Hole and Cold Spring Harbor.

The month-long program on the Princeton University campus is a retreat where the teachers absorb new information and learn new skills, expand their network of colleagues and take time to think about their work back home.

"This program gives me so many new ideas," Cathy Williamson of C.E. Byrd High School in Shreveport, Louisiana, said while adjusting an oscilloscope for a lesson in which students study the signals produced by their brains. She was among 49 teachers from 28 states and the West Indies who attended an institute on neurobiology in July.

At lab benches near Williamson's, other teachers practiced using a computer program that measures nerve signals in invertebrates. "My students would use this program," said Craig Patterson of Evanston High School in Wyoming. "It's interactive and very visual, and you can keep the variables simple."

Since 1982, more than 1,000 middle and high school science teachers have enrolled in the Woodrow Wilson program. Selected in national competitions, they attend lectures, labs and field trips at Princeton, where they live in dorms. After returning to their schools, many lead workshops for other science teachers, sharing what they learned.

"We call these teachers Trojan mice," said Dale Koepp, who directs the program. "They've helped to train more than 50,000 other science teachers."

Two HHMI grants totaling $4 million have enabled the Woodrow Wilson program to expand its institutes for biology teachers. The participants learn from visiting scientists about recent developments in the field, and spend most afternoons doing experiments and mastering new lesson plans. A daily highlight is a show-and-tell where teachers share successful ideas from their own classrooms.

Laura Maitland of Mepham High School in Bellmore, New York, for instance, demonstrated a method for teaching students the concept of stereoscopic sound. She blindfolded another teacher and asked her to point to where others were using small metal "clickers" around her. The blindfolded teacher had more trouble locating sounds from above, below or in front than from the left or right. She also found it harder to find sounds when her head was still or when she held a cylinder outside her ear. The lesson showed why humans have two ears and set the stage for a discussion of how the brain processes sounds and other stimuli.

Loretta Loykasek of Burleson, Texas, then presented an ethics lesson about which patient should receive a kidney transplant. Nancy Gravito of Buena High School in Sierra Vista, Arizona, followed with ideas on using new image processing software to teach genetics.

"We're trying to create change at the content and educational levels," said Dale Koepp. "You can't mandate change, especially in an institution as petrified as a school." Participants in the session ranged from newcomers to experienced teachers who graduated from college just as the revolution in molecular biology was beginning. Some teachers were already knowledgeable about neuroscience, while others had spent more time studying botany, physiology and other subjects. All were looking for inexpensive ideas for student experiments.

David Journeay of LBJ High School in Austin, Texas, said his entire science department received less than $2,000 for supplies and materials last year. "If you need potatoes for a demonstration," he said, "you go to the store and buy the potatoes yourself. When we opened our computer lab, it had computers that were already 15 years out of date. Then people wonder why our students can't use a Pentium(R) computer to do an experiment."

Two rows of networked computers were used throughout the sessions and long into the evening by the teachers in Princeton. They searched for information on the World Wide Web and kept notes for a catalog of teaching ideas that the Woodrow Wilson program compiles after every session. The group also met with prominent biologists such as Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and Eric Wieschaus, a winner of last year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

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Jim Keeley
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