Success Of National Labs' Teacher Training In Question

Brookhaven, Livermore rekindle teachers' love of subjects, but no one knows if their students benefit in the long run John Short returned to his Long Island, N.Y., high school science classroom energized by the teacher enrichment course he had attended at nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory. That contact with lab scientists, he recalls, inspired him to institute more hands-on experiences and to encourage students to undertake research projects of their own. For a while. "

By | February 18, 1991

Brookhaven, Livermore rekindle teachers' love of subjects, but no one knows if their students benefit in the long run
John Short returned to his Long Island, N.Y., high school science classroom energized by the teacher enrichment course he had attended at nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory. That contact with lab scientists, he recalls, inspired him to institute more hands-on experiences and to encourage students to undertake research projects of their own. For a while.

"Ultimately, it was frustrating," says Short, who teaches at Harborfield High School. "As a teacher, you're always at the mercy of what your district and school will do. Even though administrators, parents, and everybody might want the kids to do the kinds of projects that lead to a Westinghouse [Science Talent Search award]--and even when a teacher has gotten good ideas and made contacts that would really help--you can't do it if your schedule doesn't make time for it in the school day or beyond, and if there aren't money and facilities."

Teacher training programs at the Department of Energy's national laboratories, like the one Short attended in the mid-1980s, are hardly new. The one at Brookhaven Lab, in Upton, N.Y., is part of a program begun in 1958 that brings local high school mathematics and science teachers together with laboratory scientists for a one-, two-, or three-semester course during the school year. With an enrollment of about 30 per year, the lab's teacher education programs have now reached nearly 1,000 teachers.

Says Karl Swyler of Brook-haven's Office of Educational Programs, "In the late sixties the courses evolved into their current form--multidisciplinary studies of some major topic, such as energy or the environment, with each scientist bringing his own research to bear on the subject. That's the difference between us and most university programs. We have the luxury of offering people a truly interdisciplinary look at a subject."

The idea has been seized upon by top officials in the Bush administration as part of a campaign to elevate the importance of science education. In 1989, for example, Energy Secretary James Watkins declared such programs to be a top priority.

Visibility isn't the same as success, however. To date, the two longest-running programs of their kind, at Brookhaven and at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, offer anecdotal evidence that the courses help motivated teachers give students a more realistic and positive view of science and scientists. But the ability of such programs to achieve widespread and long-lasting changes in student learning has been hampered by a lack of coordination, poor communication within school systems, constraints on the time and energy of classroom teachers, and a paucity of follow-up studies.

If increased teacher enthusiasm is the only gauge, then both the Livermore and Brookhaven efforts must be counted as successful. Both boast rising applicant pools. And many teachers in the Brookhaven program keep returning as new courses are offered (approximately every three to six years).

"I've gone back every time they've had a new course," says Tenny Spofford, a science teacher at Commack High School on Long Island who has 30 years of experience.

"It's exciting to meet experimenters and talk to them and ask them questions."

The Brookhaven program helps bring his students in touch with the real world, says Harborfield's Short. "Kids don't necessarily believe the things they see in textbooks are real," he says. "But when they see a slide of me standing next to an accelerator, working with the radiation they're reading about, they're much more receptive to my whole message. They're able to see what goes on in laboratories as real because they know me--a real person who's been there. That's encouraging to all kinds of kids."

Three thousand miles away, Livermore scientists are in the midst of their 22nd year of offering workshops for elementary and middle school teachers. Choosing a topic from California's state curriculum guidelines, lab scientists explain to the teachers how basic scientific principles relate to research taking place at the laboratory. Then, teachers and scientists develop lesson plans and classroom materials that promote a hands-on approach to learning. For a lesson on global warming, for example, students might be asked to measure levels of carbon dioxide by tying a balloon to the tailpipe of a car.

"We try to show teachers how to take that curiosity about the world that we all have and turn it into science lessons that will work with students," says Hector Timourian of Livermore's Science Education Center. "Then we have the teachers test and refine the materials in their own classes or in summer school. As a final step, we publish them." Livermore's programs reach about 100 teachers annually, he says.

At a minimum, then, the DOE lab programs give teachers something tangible to take back to the classroom. They can also help teachers and other school professionals solve the perennial problem of spreading the word about science, says Judy Wright, science curriculum specialist for the Hayward County, Calif., schools. "Students don't think of careers in science," Wright says. "Even teachers somehow find out about the reading and math conferences, but not about the science ones.

"When labs get involved with schools, they can do something about this. When you increase the visibility of scientists, show that they're real people, you decrease the mysticism. Teachers see that science is something real people do, so they can do it, too. And kids are more willing to study it, because they see it as a viable career."

Isolation from peers and a resulting lack of professionalism is among the other problems many science teachers face. Lab programs help combat this by bringing teachers together and encouraging the teachers to continue networking after the program ends.

"There are so many physics teachers who don't have anybody in the building to talk to," says Jim Ruebush, a Chicago-area physics teacher who has participated in teacher-education programs at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., and now heads Physics West, a network of teachers who have attended the lab's programs. "By giving a group of teachers a common background, the lab can help solidify a strong support group among them. Now we have people we want to share ideas and skills with."

Robert Sigda, East Islip (Long Island) High School science department chairman and a former president of the National Science Teachers Association, praises the labs' ability to offer new life to experienced teachers who may be on the verge of burnout.

"The teachers who participate gain a good deal of renewed enthusiasm," he says. "The lab programs are one of the few things that have replaced some of the old NSF programs of the post-Sputnik era. And experienced teachers really need some new reason to feel engaged with what they do. What does the department get out of it? A contented teacher with expertise."

But Sigda is more pessimistic about the possibility of devising programs that could change the approach to science of all teachers and students. "The problem isn't the researcher," he says. "There are all kinds of things they could run. The problem is getting the teachers out of the school to do these things.

"Most people don't understand the energy level and pressure of teaching, of being on stage four or five hours every day. If programs can't be built into a schedule, then it can sound good, but there's no reality in the picture."

A truly useful program, he says, would survey teachers to find out such things as who would really come, and whether attendance would increase if stipends were offered. "If you were to run a course at the high school--say, 10 weekly sessions after school--then you might get the widespread participation you're after," he predicts. The impact of these program is hard to assess because the classes are open to all teachers and they are not overseen by an individual school or an entire system. As a result, neither the labs nor the local school districts are even sure which teachers have participated in what programs.

"I'm on a committee from the [California] Department of Education, trying to form an information network of staff development programs for teachers," Wright says. "Lots of schools in the county, especially the Oakland city schools, get lots of assistance from the labs. But we can't even find information about what's available, or what overlaps what, in one place. We can't even say to teachers, `This program does thus and so, and works the same as this one.' We're a long way from being able to say what the actual impact on schools and students has been."

Lab officials acknowledge they've done little to assess their programs' quantitative effects. "For so many years," says Brookhaven's Swyler, "we were eking out the money to keep our programs going. We were happy just to get through them. It was only last year that new DOE funding allowed us to begin doing some type of follow-up.

"We've been responsive to the kinds of things teachers said they wanted. Our Modern Physics course was suggested by a woman from the Long Island Association of Physics Teachers, for example. But we haven't done much [evaluation] that's formal."

The labs can even help science teachers win over their own school administrators, says Livermore's Timourian, by teaching those administrators what it means to do science. "A lot of our teachers came back to us and said they were having problems with their principals since they started doing hands-on, exploratory science, and having the kids work in groups," he says. "So I started a workshop for principals."

In the workshop, Timourian and his fellow scientists draw the principals into a hands-on discovery activity. Then they turn the tables on them. "In one activity they always get very noisy," Timourian says. "So we stop them right at the moment the noise is loudest and we ask, `What would you say to one of your teachers if you walked into a classroom that sounded like this?' "

The exercise, says Timourian, shows them how children learn science. "It's not sitting alone with a book and memorizing facts," he says. "It's cooperative. And it's certainly not quiet."


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