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Partners in the Preparation of Secondary Science Teachers

Ingrid Novodvorsky

Overview of College of Science Teacher Preparation Program

The College of Science Teacher Preparation Program (TPP) was established at the University of Arizona in 1999, to provide preparation for prospective middle and high-school science teachers within the College of Science. Faculty members in the program are affiliated with various content departments, including physics, chemistry, molecular and cellular biology, astronomy, and biochemistry. They also function as members of an interdisciplinary team in managing the program, teaching its courses, and advising students. Students in the program have two different degree options that lead to eligibility for teacher certification. They may remain in their science-degree programs, and take an additional 30 credits of coursework in science teaching, or they may enroll in a B.S. degree in Science Education, with concentrations available in biology, chemistry, earth science, or physics. Each of the concentration options includes the 30 credits of science-teaching coursework, and at least 45 credits of science coursework.

The 30 credits of science teaching coursework are spread among seven courses, including a semester-long student teaching experience. Four of the courses that students take prior to student teaching include field experiences in area middle and high schools. These field experiences range from 20 hours of observations in the first two courses, to 8-week internships in the last two courses. Thus, students participate in approximately 140 hours of field experience before they begin their student teaching.

While the program faculty is responsible for teaching the on-campus courses in the program, it was clear from the very beginning that we needed the support and assistance of area secondary science teachers. During the planning stages of the program, the initial faculty members invited area teachers to a series of forums designed to gather their input on an ideal science teacher preparation program. These forums also served to begin building valuable partnerships with area science teachers, a partnership that continues to support the program on many levels.

We have hired three experienced science teachers, following their retirement from area schools, to work with the program as adjunct instructors. In addition, we have secured grant funding to hire Teachers-in-Residence, who leave their classrooms to work on campus for a year at a time. The presence of experienced teachers in key program roles has provided credibility in the eyes of science teachers in the community, which has strengthened their willingness to work with the program. In addition, area science teachers have a great deal of ownership in the program, further strengthening this important partnership. The following sections describe how these partnerships were established, how they are maintained, their impact on the program, and future directions.

Creation and Nurturing of Partner Group

During the summer of 2000, prior to the first semester of enrolling students in the TPP, we obtained funding to form a teacher advisory group, identified as Partners in the Preparation of Science Teachers (PEPST). The funding was provided by the Arizona Board of Regents through the Eisenhower Math and Science Education Act, and included stipends for participating in the summer workshop and attending monthly meetings during the school year. The goals for the first year of PEPST were

  1. Formation of a professional learning community of teachers and science teacher educators, 
  2. Construction of a set of tasks for use when preservice teachers observed mentor teachers’ science classrooms, and 
  3. Development of a written philosophy regarding the preparation of future science teachers.

To begin building that professional learning community, we spent much of the first summer workshop writing observation tasks for the introductory science-teaching course. Those tasks, which have been refined over the years, are still used today, and mentor teachers uniformly recognize their value in giving these classroom observations a purpose and directing our students’ attention toward aspects of the classroom that they might not otherwise notice.

The summer workshops, which continued during three subsequent summers, each focused on pertinent needs of the program as it developed. The outcomes for the second year were:

  1. Ongoing development of a partner “study group” focused on excellence in mentoring preservice science teachers, 
  2. Revision of a set of inquiry-centered teaching tasks developed and piloted in PEPST teachers’ classrooms during the project’s first year, and 
  3. Documentation of the preservice teachers’ performance on the PEPST-designed teaching tasks.

In addition to the products that resulted from the workshop, we continued to increase our pool of PEPST partners, and thereby, the pool of classrooms in which we could place our students for their field experiences and student teaching. By the third summer workshop, we were ready to focus more on the professional development of our mentor teachers. The foci of the third year were:

  1. College of Science TPP study to re-review the program 
  2. A professional study of the roles and responsibilities of successful mentor teachers, 
  3. A professional study of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK), and
  4. A professional study of the mentoring and development of preservice teachers’ PCK

In the final summer that these workshops were funded, we divided the workshop into two parts. First, we invited new PEPST partners to meet with us for three days to learn about the program and what we ask of our mentor teacher partners. Second, new and returning PEPST partners spent a week developing tasks based on videos that had been filmed in their classrooms. These tasks are used in all of the science-teaching courses, and illustrate important aspects of communication, classroom management, and teaching strategies.

In addition to the summer workshops, we invite our PEPST partners to monthly meetings during the school year. At these two-hour meetings, we ask the partner teachers for feedback on the students they are currently mentoring and input on program decisions, as well as provide professional development. For example, we have provided them with samples of our students’ work and asked them to analyze these samples for evidence that the students understood the rationale behind a teacher’s instructional decisions.

Impact of PEPST

The impact of our PESPT partners on the TPP has been substantial. The partner teachers have provided valuable advice on all aspects of the program, much of which we have incorporated into the program. Because of this, the PEPST partners believe themselves to be equal partners in science teacher education, and they have become enthusiastic advocates of our program. As a testament to this, at our monthly meetings during the academic year held at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday typically 30-40 teachers attend. This feeling of being connected to the program is also conveyed in teachers’ responses to post-workshop questionnaires.

As a direct result of PEPST partners’ impact on the program, they are eager and willing to have our students in their classrooms. We utilize approximately 70 area science teachers each semester for our field experiences, and some 50 of those are PEPST partners. Our partners are free to choose the level of involvement that best fits with their needs each semester; i.e. observers, interns or student teachers. In addition, many PEPST partners report that they have declined to accept preservice teachers from other programs in favor of TPP students. (Mentor teachers also receive a stipend for working with our preservice teachers; these are paid with TPP operation funds.)

Another aspect of the impact of PEPST is our ability to recruit Teachers-in-Residence to work with the TPP. A Teacher-in-Residence (TIR) joins us for a year to co-teach classes, supervise field experiences, and participate in program management. We currently have funding through the Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) to support a physics TIR, and through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to support a biology TIR. The teachers that apply for these positions have all been PEPST partners, and their work with the program in that capacity provides the encouragement they need to leave their classrooms for a year to work on the university campus.

Future Directions

We are committed to maintaining a strong community of mentor teacher partners to work with our preservice teachers and advise us on the TPP. Thus, one critical future direction is to recruit more science teachers into the PEPST partner group. While we recognize the increased value of placements in classrooms of teachers who know the program and what we expect, as our program has grown, we have had to place students in the classrooms of non-partner teachers. In addition, our mentor teachers need an occasional break from mentoring preservice teachers, so we need to expand the pool in order to accommodate that. We have learned that simply sending invitations to join the partner-teacher group is not very effective in recruiting busy professionals. Thus, we will be restructuring the work of our adjunct instructors to focus attention on going out to area schools to recruit additional mentor partners.

The summer workshops and monthly meetings have become a core aspect of the program for our teacher partners. Unfortunately, we did not have funding to continue them last year. Nonetheless, teachers requested opportunities to meet with TPP faculty members and other mentor teachers to continue their work with the program. Thus, securing funding to continue to support the PEPST activities is another critical future direction for our program.

Our partnership with area science teachers has reaped several benefits for the TPP. We have developed a cadre of mentor teachers eager to work with our students, and who are familiar with the program and feel a sense of ownership in it. We have greatly improved relationships between our TPP and area schools because we welcome and utilize teacher input. And, we have built a professional community of science teacher educators willing to work together to provide exemplary experiences for preservice science teachers.

Ingrid Novodvorsky is Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Arizona.