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Summer Program Trains Schoolteachers To Teach Elementary Science

Three years ago Paul Saltman, professor of biology at the University of California, San. Diego, concluded that something drastic had to be done to pull the United States up from its low international ranking in science literacy. “I thought this was just outrageous and obscene,” he says. “So I had to put my body and brain and my mouth on the line.” Convinced that children become turned off to the study of science as early as the grade-school level, Saltman focused his

Oct 16, 1989
Judy Berlfen

Three years ago Paul Saltman, professor of biology at the University of California, San. Diego, concluded that something drastic had to be done to pull the United States up from its low international ranking in science literacy. “I thought this was just outrageous and obscene,” he says. “So I had to put my body and brain and my mouth on the line.”

Convinced that children become turned off to the study of science as early as the grade-school level, Saltman focused his plans on elementary teachers. The biology professor joined forces with Melanie and Bob Dean—a team of science education consultants—along with administrators from UC-San Diego’s extension program. The group set out to design a course that would bring science out of the ivory tower, making it accessible to the elementaryschool teachers of San Diego County. Together the organizers enlisted support from a private funding agency and obtained a $940,000 grant from the National Science Foundation—and thus the Teacher Science Institute was born. The institute, a three-year summer course for teachers, has just completed its second year.

During the three summers of the program, teachers participate in the institute full-time for five weeks. They receive extension credit that may be applied to a master’s degree, National Science Teachers Association teacher certification in elementary-school science, a stipend totaling $2,460 for the three years of the program, science textbooks, and teaching materials. Mornings feature lectures by prominent UC-San Diego researchers on a variety of subjects, such as human biology, nutrition, the greenhouse effect, and meteorology. The afternoon labs provide practical experience to illustrate these general concepts, and also offer suggestions for lesson plans that can be taken back to the classroom. In these lab sessions, the teachers perform simple experiments designed specifically for elementary-age children. They receive additional reinforcement at monthly meetings during the academic years in between the summer sessions.

But providing three summers of science for 100 teachers won’t change the face of the U.S. educational system. While Saltman’s team hopes to inspire a core of teachers, he says, it is up to the teachers to share their newly acquired knowledge. Otherwise, the benefits would be negligible. “You can’t raise the tide by micturating in the ocean,” says Saltman.

That’s where the second part of the program comes in. Institute participants are expected to sponsor workshops for their colleagues and spread their newly acquired knowledge to their districts. Eventually, it is hoped, the benefits of the institute will increase exponentially, and every child in San Diego County will begin to get a taste of science.

Going Against Dogma

“We tried something here that goes against what is almost considered dogma in the educational community,” Charles Puglia, manager of NSF’s Teacher Preparation and Enhancement Program, told the teachers during a visit to the institute this summer. “That is that research scientists cannot talk and communicate with elementary teachers.”

Of the 100 teachers who attended the program this summer, 91 had less than a year of college science. These teachers may well have felt awed when Walter Munk, professor of geophysics at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., discussed his research on acoustic tomography, or when Harding Smith, associate professor of physics at UC-San Diego, spoke about the birth and death of stars.

Given the scope of the material presented at the institute, it is likely that the teachers may not be able to bring it all back to the classroom. But Saltman doesn’t intend for the scientists to present facts to be merely regurgitated. “[The professors] are there for one purpose only,” he says, “to empower teachers with a love of science.”

Richard Somerville, head of the climate research group at Scripps, hopes he succeeded in that task this summer, when he taught classes in meteorology at the institute. He compares the job to walking a tightrope. “You had to talk for two and a half hours for five days, and do it in a way in which you are deprived of your natural idiom, which is technical and mathematical language.” The students, hesays, made the experience an exciting one for him: “They were very positive and enthusiastic, and they let you know it.”

“It’s very important not to talk down or to be patronizing” when lecturing at the institute, Somerville says. “it was my job to make what I thought was exciting about my field intelligible and accessible to these people. It’s an exciting challenge, but hard to do when you’re deprived of the usual tools.”

The teachers, for their part, believe that Somerville and his colleagues met the challenge. “None of it has been very elementary,” says one participant about the program, “but at the same time it’s been very understandable.”

Bolstered by the success of the first year of the institute, at the conclusion of the 1988 sessions the organizers began setting their sights beyond San Diego. With an additional grant from NSF, which runs from April 1989 to June 1990, Saltman and the Deans are aiming to get the entire state of California actively involved in teaching science.

Over the last year, they have been recruiting scientists from the University of California’s Berkeley and Davis campuses, the University of Southern California, California Institute of Technology, and Stanford University to re-create the spirit of the project in their own backyards. “If we get these five institutions,” says Saltman, “we will have 90% of the population [of California]. Then [we would] have something that really has national scope.”

On August21 and 22, researchers from many of these schools met at UC-San Diego to observe the institute in action. Educators and administrators from around the state also took part in the conference.

The visitors were impressed by the enthusiasm of the elementary teachers. “As soon as you walked in the room, you saw something real happening to these people,” says David Deamer, professor of zoology at UC-Davis. Though he has never been involved in this type of project before, he’s anxious to carry the message back to Davis.

Deamer hopes to find the right person to administer the program at Davis. He’s envisioning a scientist in the later stages of his or her career who can afford some time away from the lab. Realistically, he believes the project at Davis will have to be pared down by one half or one third. But he and his colleagues who attended the conference are ready to give it a go. “In a sense,” he says, "we ‘re going to be apostles, taking the gospel back to Davis.”

Representatives from the other universities, while intrigued, will probably take more time before moving forward with plans for a similar program. “It’s kind of what I expected,” says Saltman. “Things come very slowly." The institute’s organizers are considering repeating the program in San Diego after the first class of teachers completes the program next summer.

Though the summer institute alone may not elevate the status of the U.S. among the world’s leaders in science literacy, the dedication of a few people has set the creaky wheels in motion. “If we had a higher level of general technical awareness and literacy in this country, if we paid schoolteachers attractive salaries, if we stiffened up the requirement [for becoming a teacher] and received better educations,” Somerville says, then our teachers would do a better job of teaching science. “But rather than curse the darkness, I think this [program] is a good example of lighting a candle.”

Judy Berlfen is a science writer based in Encinitos, Calif.

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