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A Year's Sabbatical for Science Teachers


The College of the Holy Cross offers free training every summer to two fortunate Worcester Public School science teachers.

A year's sabbatical. That is what the College of the Holy Cross provides every year for two science teachers from the Worcester Public Schools in Massachusetts. The teachers receive free tuition at Holy Cross to enable them to retool in their disciplines and to update their teaching plans and curricula.

Al Petkus, for instance, hadn't had a break in three decades of teaching biology and chemistry until he began his sabbatical two years ago. "It was great," he said. "When you're teaching during the year, it's very hard to keep up."

The sabbatical program at Holy Cross, which has received three HHMI undergraduate science education grants totaling $2.25 million since 1991, is unusual. Those behind the program, however, say it is the most direct way to improve science teaching.

"You have to invest in individuals," said Frank Vellaccio, provost at Holy Cross. "They're going to be teaching for another 20 years, and you have to get them excited again about science."

The school system pays the teachers's salaries during their sabbaticals. The college picks up the salaries of the two recent Holy Cross science graduates who fill the teachers's positions while they are away.

Holy Cross also offers training programs for Worcester science teachers during the summer, and science programs during the school year for middle school students from underrepresented minority groups.

Competition for the sabbaticals has intensified among local teachers, whose schools often lack basic science resources. Dermot Shea (above), a physical science teacher at Forest Grove Middle School, tells how much trouble he had obtaining triple beam balances for students to use. He finally turned to the police department, which gave him 47 balances confiscated from drug dealers. "Once we cleaned off the fingerprint powder, they worked great," said Shea, whose sabbatical began in September.

Shea also participated in the three-week Summer Science Enrichment Institute at Holy Cross. The 20 participants learned new scientific topics and methods, and prepared hands-on lessons to share with other Worcester teachers.

"PCR didn't even exist when I became a teacher 26 years ago," said Charles Wisniewski as he worked on a lesson involving the polymerase chain reaction method for amplifying DNA samples. "I've got to keep up with this. In school, it's usually bang-bang, rapid-fire. Here you get a chance to think about things and bounce ideas off colleagues."

One afternoon, the teachers met with Holy Cross biology professor Mary Morton for a lesson on virus transmission. Morton gave every teacher a beaker of water that represented his or her blood. One unmarked beaker contained an invisible "infectious agent" (sodium hydroxide). At regular intervals, the teachers ritually greeted one other by exchanging some water from their beakers. After three rounds, Morton added phenolphthalein to the beakers; uninfected beakers remained clear while the infected onesa majorityturned purple. The teachers cheered or groaned as they learned whether they were infecteda powerful demonstration of how quickly an infection can spread.

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Jim Keeley
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