The APS Teacher-Scientist Alliance
Ramon Lopez became Education Officer of the American Physical
Society in June 1994. In addition to his duties at APS, Lopez also holds
a half-time appointment as an Associate Research Scientist in magnetospheric
physics at the University of Maryland. His prior activities include serving
as a consultant to the National Science Resource Center, where he investigated
how to involve the scientific community in educational reform. This background
has been quite useful in striving to meet the mandate given to him by APS:
mobilize scientists by determining what part scientists can play in education
and how they must be prepared to be a successful part of science reform.
In conjunction with past APS Educational Officer Brian Schwartz, Lopez
initiated the Teacher-Scientist Alliance.
The reform model being supported by this project is derived from the
NSRC and is centered around four elements: 1) use of already existing materials
of high quality that emphasize a hands-on, inquiry-based program of learning,
2) development of a materials support infrastructure for the educational
unit, 3) ongoing support for the teacher to assist him or her in the transition
to the new model, and 4) changes in assessment that are aligned with changes
in instruction. None of the four programmatic elements are sustainable
without ongoing administrative and community support. This involves education
of administrators and parents to familiarize them with the new model and
how they can be supportive of the transition.
The origination of materials by school districts is prohibitive, given
the cost and time of development and production. Instead, many districts
need to identify already existing materials and then train their faculty
and administrators how to most effectively use them. The materials to be
used are kit-based, with each kit containing 8-10 weeks of science activities.
Although the kits are necessarily somewhat generic, most materials can
be modified to fit a particular situation. The `kit' idea originated in
the 1960's and was supported by NSF. Although many teachers were intimidated
by these materials, some districts were very successful with the `kit'
concept. These original materials were the foundation for the current wave
of curriculum reform. The National Science Resource Center, in developing
the reform model, studied those school districts that succeeded with the
kit approach to find out what works.
Centralization of Access to Materials
Once the materials have been purchased by the school district, an infrastructure
is necessary to maintain and disseminate the materials. The infrastructure
removes one of the significant barriers to the use of the hands-on pedagogy
by ensuring that all kit materials are present and in good working order.
The central site also schedules delivery and pick-up of the materials.
The teacher is thus free to devote her or his time to effective teaching
of the concepts. Teacher-supported systems have been tried in the past,
usually with disappointing results. A central site for the school district,
where all of the science `kits' reside, can more efficiently ensure that
kits are stocked with all necessary parts, including consumables, and make
sure that all of the pieces are present and functioning correctly. Centralization
offers the additional benefit of savings through bulk purchasing by large
In-Service Education for Teachers in Inquiry Teaching and Assessment
The essential element of this model is professional development for teachers. "For
most teachers, you're asking them to teach in a way in which they were
never taught", Lopez says. "Most had a large lecture-based science experience,
and now we want them to teach using new materials in a new pedagogical
approach." Teacher support is an ongoing need, Lopez emphasizes. In the
first year, support is necessary for teachers nervous about teaching science
at all, much less doing it in such a new context. New teachers must have
the opportunity to visit classrooms in which these new techniques are being
used. After the first year, the teacher should have had the necessary training
to be able to use the equipment in the classroom; however, the experience
is just starting. In addition to new teaching methods, new assessment techniques
must also be considered. In this model, assessment becomes an on-going
tool to identify problems that students have during the year. The transition
from the current lecture-based environment to an inquiry-based environment,
Lopez says, is likely a five-year process.
The need for ongoing professional development is not based solely on
the time needed for each teacher to make the transition. Turnover rate
in many school districts is 10- 20%. If professional development opportunities
are not viewed by the educational unit as a line item in each year's budget,
the program will eventually die due to stagnation and lack of expertise.
Professional development provides opportunities for experienced teachers
to grow and communicate with their peers, as well as providing new teachers
an opportunity to start on the process. Unfortunately, when budget crunches
occur, in- service training is often viewed as one of the most expendable
Ongoing Support from Community and Administrative Support
The initial impact of most reform efforts is change; however, the true
test of effectiveness is how long the changes last. The longevity of reform
depends critically on ongoing community and administrator support. Like
the teachers, most administrators and parents encountered science in the
traditional paradigm. To provide effective support for students and teachers,
parents and administrators must become familiar with how the classroom
is changing. Lopez emphasized the need for `science activists' in the community
- people who are interested in science and believe that good science education
is important for all children. "When a school considers cutting a football
program", Lopez said, "people show up at board meetings to protest. Why
should there not be the same commitment to science education?" This commitment
on the part of the community and administration is the "glue that holds
the internal adjustments together".
Bringing the Scientist into Elementary Science Education Reform: A Case
As mentioned earlier, professional development for teachers is a necessity.
Before bringing the new learning techniques to the classroom, teachers
need an opportunity to work with the kits and master the basic scientific
principles. This need resulted in the Teacher-Scientist Alliance program
that Lopez is currently developing. By linking scientists and educators
involved in science education reform, Lopez hopes to fulfill the professional
development needs of participating teachers.
Montgomery County (MD) is the 10th largest school district in the country.
Although it is a wealthier school district, there is a significant amount
of diversity, including a large English as a Second Language population.
There are 68,000 elementary students and a total school population of 125,000.
Montgomery County is in the 4th year of implementing system-wide reform.
580 teachers will be brought into the program this year. Lopez has had
a long relationship with the school district, and so was able to work well
with district leadership. All of these elements contribute to a significant
potential for success.
The Teacher-Scientist Alliance effort began by Lopez sending a letter
to APS members with addresses in Montgomery County zip codes asking if
they would be interested in attending a one-day workshop to see what the
new science instruction is like. This letter produced a 9% positive response.
Forty-five people eventually attended the one-day workshop presenting an
overview of the new techniques and materials. Participants came from a
wide range of interests and career points within physics, but Lopez notes
that there was a disproportionately large number of retired scientists.
The main motivation for many participants was that people had children
or grandchildren in the school district, or time on their hands that they
wanted to use constructively. Lopez believes a significant factor in the
large positive response to an unsolicited invitation was that he asked
for a very specific time commitment. He believes that open-ended commitments
scare away potential volunteers. In keeping with this philosophy, a series
of sign-up sheets was available at the end of the one-day workshop that
described the kits, the targeted grade levels and the days that workshops
would be held. Scientists were asked to sign up for four half-day, kit-specific
The kit-specific workshops are run by lead teachers in the district.
The attending teachers are seeing the kits for the first time and are guided
through the essential science concepts by the lead teachers. Volunteer
physicists attend the workshops just like any other participant, are assigned
to be part of a group and work through each of the activities in the kit.
In these workshop groups, Lopez emphasizes, the scientist is not the leader
- the teacher is.
The advantage of scientist participation is the particular perspective
that scientists bring to the learning experience. For someone with a traditional
view of science and no hands- on experience, admitting a lack of knowledge
is equivalent to failure. Lopez cites this `cultural change' as the most
difficult for the teachers to make. Professional scientists, however, are
used to treating a lack of knowledge in a field as a challenge. "Scientists
ooze this attitude", Lopez enthuses, "they just can't help it. The simple
mechanics of science, like observation, surprise, and wonder, are things
that we want teachers to emulate and create in the classroom." Success
with the new model depends on communicating to teachers that this mode
of learning is good.
He noted that the scientists are not limited to areas in which they have
some expertise. Some physicists signed up for biology or earth science
kits because they sounded interesting. Sometimes, though, understanding
of content does have advantages. As an example, Lopez cited a workshop
on a 4th grade electric circuits unit. The task at hand was to create a
light bulb using a piece of nichrome wire, some insulated wires and a battery.
One set of participants at first couldn't get their resistive nichrome
wire to glow. Eventually, they shortened the wire by cutting it, and the
`light bulb' lit. Neither of the lead teachers running the workshop could
explain why the longer wire didn't work, but the scientists on hand could.
("...and", Lopez notes, "they did it in plain language.") The dependence
of the `bulb' on the length of the wire became an option to the experiment
for teachers who wanted to extend the lab.
Teachers and scientists have both commented positively on the workshops.
Lopez notes that a lot of planning went into the initial one-day workshop
to help avoid some of the pitfalls that may occur when scientists and teachers
interact. The initial workshop was formulated as a learning experience,
with the implicit assumption that the scientists didn't already have an
intuitive knowledge of how to teach. Participants were shown the complexity
of curriculum development, developmental psychology, selection of appropriate
material, etc. The understanding of the complicated issues faced by teachers
produced a new level of appreciation of the teachers by the scientists.
Lopez also noted that the scientists participating in the program are self-selected,
which assisted in the smooth progress.
In the next year of the program, Lopez intends to expand the activities
to include other types of scientists. The larger number of volunteers is
necessary to meet the needs of the larger number of teachers to be inserviced,
and to distribute the scientists throughout the workshops in a more uniform
way. In addition to introducing more teachers to the new model, teachers
who have completed the first in-service level will have the opportunity
to meet and compare notes on their classroom experiences. Extension workshops,
in which teachers can discuss how they have modified and tailored the materials
to their specific situations, will help move the reform to a new level.
Placing scientists who have also had some experience with the kits in these
workshops is desirable.
Lopez notes that some scientists have been visiting the classrooms using
the kit-based instruction, but emphasizes that this isn't a requirement
for participation. One pitfall of having scientists visit schools is that
this can evolve into the kind of open-ended commitment that scares away
volunteers. The workshops help form links between scientists and teachers:
scientist visits are then arranged by mutual consent. He emphasizes that
the workshop experience has significantly changed the nature of the scientist
visits. In the past, visiting scientists gave a self-contained presentation
which may or may not have had much relationship to the curriculum. Eventually,
Lopez plans to set up a more formalized arrangement where scientist visits
are part of the program, but not until scientists are adequately prepared.
This is keeping with his philosophy that scientists shouldn't be a disruption
to the instruction: they should be a full supporting piece instead of something
The experiment in Montgomery County has produced promising results. The
next phase of the program is to expand the idea to other sites around the
country. Nine sites have been identified for the next phase of participation
(see sidebar). Each site was selected on the basis
of a strong commitment to elementary science reform. A week-long APS- funded
workshop held in conjunction with AAPT took place in January. About one
half of the participants were physicists, 25-30% were other scientists
and the rest were from school districts. A variety of nationally recognized
speakers gave presentations on issues of science reform, including assessment,
curriculum reform and materials management. One day was spent at classrooms
in Montgomery County schools to provide a real-world example of this model.
A visit to the Montgomery County materials science center examined the
nuts-and-bolts logistics of servicing an educational unit the size of Montgomery
Participants at the workshop received a very specific charge to return
and act as leadership for reform in their community. They also received
reading materials and other resources to assist them in gathering and disseminating
information. The primary roles of these lead scientists are to act as go-betweens
between the science community and the school districts. At the appropriate
time, these leaders will organize local workshops with the assistance of
the APS. When the program is ready to initiate scientist workshops, APS
will assist in identifying local scientists and sending a solicitation
letter. The results from the conference are quickly becoming evident. For
example, the group from Trenton, NJ is already organizing a 1-day workshop
for science district administrators, teachers, and coordinators from 7
neighboring school districts.
APS will support reform efforts by providing experts and guidance in
planning. APS's role is not to provide funding, but to assist groups in
identifying funding programs and writing proposals. APS may be able to
help out with a critical need or early planning money for school districts
entering into a partnership with APS and the lead scientists who are the
extensions of APS. The National Science Foundation currently has a program
for Local Systemic Change for Teacher Enhancement, which offers large grants
for teacher inservice programs designed to be part of the Systemic Reform
One resource for reform teams is the `Leadership Institutes' offered
by the National Science Resource Council. These are one-week long workshops
over the summer that bring together teams from 14-15 school districts.
Teams consists of the superintendent or assistant superintendent, director
of curriculum and instruction or science coordinator, one or more master
teachers, and one or more outside scientists or engineers working with
the district. Admittance to the workshop is competitive. As with the week-long
APS workshop (which was based in part on these Leadership Institutes),
the workshop offers intensive immersion in science education reform. The
goal of the workshop is to leave with a 5-year strategic plan for implementing
reform. By writing the plan down, it takes on a reality. The workshop provides
a resource team knowledgeable about issues in science reform to facilitate
the development of the plan. Resource personnel provide background to help
the teams avoid pitfalls previously encountered by other efforts.
If you are located in one of the ten site areas and you would like to
work as a lead scientists in the movement, contact Ramon Lopez at the APS
office. Information on the program will be available shortly on the APS
HomePage of the World Wide Web ().
If you are interested in organizing a leadership team, you can contact
the National Science Resources Center (202) 357-2555 and request an information
packet about NSRC. The packet includes information about the leadership
institutes. NSRC also runs a week-long workshop that covers K-12 science
education reform. If you are located in one of the site areas, but prefer
to work just a few days a year, sit tight for now and wait for the solicitation