FEd April 1995 Newsletter - The APS Teacher-Scientist Alliance

April 1995



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The APS Teacher-Scientist Alliance

Diandra Leslie-Pelecky

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 educational districts.

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 items.

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 Study

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 sessions.

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 separate.


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 County.

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 Movement.

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 (http://www.aps.org). 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 letter.