By Gabriel Popkin
Photo by Ted Hodapp
Towson University physics professor and PhysTEC project leader Cody Sandifer works with a future elementary teacher.
Towson University professors Laura Lising and Cody Sandifer know that for too many elementary students, a science lesson means listening to the teacher read from a book, or quietly filling out a worksheet. To address this problem, the two professors and several dedicated elementary teachers have spent the last four years reforming the course Teaching Science in the Elementary School, which gives Towson’s elementary education majors a chance to focus on practicing science teaching.
Lising and Sandifer wanted Towson graduates to be able to expose their young students to the excitement of scientific investigation and discovery. A multi-year grant awarded in 2004 by the APS-led Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC) project provided the funding for Lising and Sandifer to take on this ambitious effort.
Four years later, each future elementary teacher at Towson now gets the opportunity to spend a semester delivering weekly science lessons to a group of four to six elementary students, and reflecting on his or her experiences through writing assignments, discussions, and audio recordings of their lessons. The course instructors help the future teachers develop the concept of inquiry as a guiding principle for their teaching—an approach that encourages learning through active investigation and deep thinking, rather than by passively absorbing information. Lising and Sandifer, along with their Teachers-in-Residence (TIRs), lead workshops for the course instructors and mentor teachers at the beginning of each semester, to ensure that all project participants have a strong understanding of the course goals and the importance of inquiry teaching.
Lising and Sandifer have gathered evidence that Towson’s elementary teachers can now teach science with confidence and enthusiasm, and incorporate a significant amount of inquiry into their practice. They report that “it is possible, given the proper course structure, support, and feedback, for interns to experience a radical change in attitude toward science and science teaching after only a single semester.” As one intern noted in an end-of-semester reflection, “I never thought I would say this, but I truly loved teaching science. My fear of teaching science is completely gone.” Although research indicates that actual classroom practice is much harder to impact than attitudes–especially when the goal is facilitation of inquiry–systematic observations of the interns’ actual practice in the classroom also show dramatic improvements toward aligning with nationally recognized standards in science education.
The project has proven so successful in improving elementary teachers’ attitudes toward and practice of science teaching that Towson’s Fisher College of Science and Mathematics has secured resources to sustain the project beyond the external funding provided by PhysTEC, which ends this year. Towson will pay for workshops and stipends for the mentoring teachers and course instructors who participate in the project, and also support the TIR position that PhysTEC has funded in the past. The TIR will continue to coordinate classroom placements for future teachers, administer and analyze assessments, develop and help disseminate resources for others who wish to make similar reforms in their courses, and do many other activities to support the science education of future elementary teachers.
Towson’s project is unique among those sponsored by PhysTEC in that it focuses on elementary–as opposed to secondary–teacher education. Lising and Sandifer are also in a unique position as science education researchers within Towson’s Department of Physics, Astronomy, and Geosciences, which enables them to apply the department’s resources to problems not traditionally considered to belong to physics research. Because Towson graduates over 200 elementary teachers a year–the most of any institution in Maryland–this project has the potential to foster independent scientific thinking and encourage an early love for science in many thousands of future elementary students. In addition, the project team has developed a set of resources, available on CD or online
, that allow course instructors at other institutions to use the activities they have developed.
Towson is now planning to become a major player in secondary physics teacher preparation as well. The physics department is hiring a tenure-track faculty member to improve the secondary physics teacher preparation program and recruit more undergraduates to teaching. In addition, Sandifer has started a Learning Assistant program, adapted from the program developed at the University of Colorado, that enables talented undergraduates–and potential future teachers–to help their peers master math and science. Towson appears to be in an ideal position to lead the University System of Maryland’s effort to triple its science teacher production in three years–a goal set by the system Chancellor Britt Kirwan. The PhysTEC project is excited to continue working with Towson to improve physics and physical science teacher education at all levels.