Forum on Education of The American Physical Society
Summer 2006 Newsletter



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Improving Science Teaching in California

Richard Farnsworth and Stanley F. Hitomi

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) is a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) research institution for science and technology applied to national security. The LLNL security mission requires special multidisciplinary research capabilities that are used to pursue programs in advanced defense technologies, energy, environment, biosciences and basic science to meet important national needs. LLNL has a tradition of sharing these multidisciplinary research resources to support science instruction in schools. These science outreach programs are developed and offered to students and teachers by the LLNL Science and Technology Education Program (STEP).

Currently, LLNL is using some of its scientific resources to help solve a problem critical to California: having sufficient numbers of students prepared to meet the state's future technological and economic demands. At the root of this problem is a serious shortage of adequately trained science teachers capable of producing these students. In California in 2003, many of the teachers of physical and life science did not have the subject matter knowledge, training, and skills essential to helping students learn. Thirty-four percent of physical science teachers, and twenty-two percent of life science teachers were under-prepared to teach their subject. Source: California Department of Education, Educational Demographics Unit (2003). Public School Enrollment and Staffing Data Files (CBEDS); SRI analysis.

To more effectively address the issue of too few qualified science teachers in California, LLNL-STEP joined with the University of California Davis, School of Education, Edward Teller Education Center (ETEC) to produce a program that enables middle and high school science teachers to develop and maintain mastery in their scientific field. The program follows the successful strategy outlined in a report submitted for publication by Columbia University's Summer Research Program for Secondary School Science Teachers that "effective teachers of a discipline must have hands-on experience with the practice of that discipline."

In creating this program, STEP brought access to the rich scientific resources and expertise at LLNL, and ETEC added the expertise in teacher professional development methods and pedagogy. Together they created the Teacher Research Academy (TRA), a professional development program where middle and high school science teachers practice using advanced scientific instrumentation with classroom activities that link their usage with state science content standards.

Each of the content areas offered in TRA is derived from the cutting-edge science conducted at LLNL providing a context for teachers to explain how this science is used to solve real, large-scale problems. A team comprised of master science teachers and LLNL researchers develops the materials used in the TRA program. Together they create standards-based instruction that can be used in the classroom that reflects current science research at LLNL. Currently there are three fields of study in the TRA: Fusion and Astrophysics, Biotechnology and Biophotonics. A fourth content area, Environment and Energy Technologies, is under development for release in 2007. Additional topics will be added over time.

The Fusion and Astrophysics Research Academy:

The Fusion and Astrophysics Research Academy provides experience in promoting and conducting research using spectroscopy with students. Spectroscopy is important in a wide variety of fields such as fusion research, astrophysics, and atomic physics. Instruction in the Academy focuses on the properties of electromagnetic radiation and how it is produced. Participants discover how scientists can learn about inaccessible objects like the Sun and the interior of fusion reactors using a research grade spectrometer.

Biotechnology Research Academy:

The Biotechnology Research Academy is designed to give teachers experience in promoting and conducting research in biotechnology with their students. Teachers develop knowledge and hands-on skills in the areas of genomics, proteomics, and bioinformatics. LLNL has participated in the Human Genome Project and supported programs in bioinformatics, microbial diagnostics, microbial detection, and structural and computational biology. In the Biotechnology Research Academy teachers learn about research at LLNL and its connections to the classroom, including hands-on activities in genomics, proteomics, and bioinformatics. Highlights include: PCR, DNA fingerprinting, column chromatography, protein fingerprinting, sequencing, and bioinformatics.

The Biophotonics Research Academy:

Biophotonics is the science of generating and harnessing light (photons) to image, detect and manipulate biological materials. It is used in biology to study molecular mechanisms, function and structure, and in medicine to study tissue at the macro and micro level to detect, diagnose and treat disease. Biophotonics is also playing a key role in biodefense and homeland security. Biophotonics integrates the many science disciplines including physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, and engineering, providing an excellent avenue for introducing students to the truly interdisciplinary nature of much of scientific research.

For each scientific discipline, the TRA model is divided into four levels where Level-I teaches entry-level skills and knowledge. Each subsequent level then builds on the knowledge and skills of the previous level, creating a depth of understanding that leads to mastery. The description and chart below outlines what a teacher can expect to do when they participate in a TRA.

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Level-I: This is the entry level for the TRA and provides instruction in basic knowledge and skills associated with a specific scientific discipline. It is comprised of three days of instruction, including hands-on activities, use of scientific equipment, tours of research labs, and lectures by research scientists. In Level-I teachers are provided with content materials and activities that they can use to integrate cutting-edge science in their standards-based instruction at grades 6-14. An equipment loan program is available for graduates of Level-I. No prerequisites are required. This level provides instruction in advanced knowledge and skills. The program is comprised of five days of instruction, including hands-on activities using the science technology of the discipline and science lectures by practicing scientists. Level-1 is the prerequisite, however, a waiver is available for teachers who can demonstrate competency in the requisite skills and knowledge.

The Level-II curriculum develops advanced skills and knowledge consistent with the requirements to teach advance placement or college preparatory courses.

Level-III: Teachers who have completed Levels I and II participate in a pre-internship experience that prepares them to become a member of a research team. They develop their knowledge of research methods and practices sufficient to enable them to work in a mentored research assignment. The program is comprised of five days of instruction, including research methods, lectures by scientists on research strategies, and job shadowing in research labs.

Level-IV: This level is a minimum of a 30-day mentored research experience as member of an interdisciplinary research team. Participants produce deliverables, including a research paper based upon the experience, a lesson to extend the research into the classroom, and a final presentation to the Level-IV cohort on their research experience and how they believe it will contribute to their teaching practice in the coming years.

The TRA has two pathways to support a teacher's professional development plans. A teacher can choose to be an Investigator, exploring several disciplines to develop a breadth of knowledge and skills, or they can choose to become a Teacher Researcher, developing a deep understanding within one scientific discipline as a member of a multidiscipline research team. Teachers who want to build a breadth of skills and knowledge and can choose to complete Levels I, or I and II, in several disciplines. By completing Levels I through IV in one discipline, the teacher becomes a researcher where they apply their skills and knowledge to solve a problem. These research experiences stretch teachers intellectually and personally, and enable them to understand the way successful scientists practice science. (A report submitted for publication by Columbia University's Summer Research Program for Secondary School Science Teachers)

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The ongoing nature of the program, with the same content being offered year-after-year, allows teachers to move as rapidly as they wish through the curriculum. They can spread out their participation over time, matching their development to their changing needs as their career matures.

The Teacher Research Academy is starting the fourth year of operation in 2006. In the initial three years, 267 teachers have participated in the workshops with eight completing mentored research internship. In 2006, an additional 136 teachers have registered to participate in TRA including two who will complete a research internship.

The program evaluation scheme is scheduled to be initiated in 2007. Currently only anecdotal information is available to assess the success of the TRA. These anecdotes from participants express how their participation has changed their teaching practice. Participating teachers report they are learning new skills and upgrading their knowledge of current scientific practices and that they are integrating these new standards-based skills and activities into their instruction. Several of the participants have reported that they are using these new skills as the basis of creating new lessons and new courses not previously offered in their schools. In least three instances, participants have used this experience as the basis of writing and being awarded grants in excess of $400,000 to create new programs for their schools.

The TRA instruction is offered free of charge to science teachers. The majority of the instruction occurs at LLNL, however many of the workshops are offered through collaborative partnerships at regional training centers in several Central Valley California locations. These centers enable teachers unable to travel to Livermore to have local access to this professional development. In addition to Livermore, the TRA program is offered in Davis, Stockton, Merced, Fresno, and Bakersfield. The STEP-ETEC collaboration will provide the TRA curriculum and train master instructors to disseminate TRA at other sites. Institutions interested in establishing a Regional Center can find information about the TRA program at the STEP web site:, and by contacting the Manager of STEP, Richard Farnsworth by email at

Richard Farnsworth is Manager of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Science and Technology Education Program (STEP) and has worked in STEP for 16 years. He directed the development and implementation at LLNL of a variety of professional development programs for teachers and enrichment programs for students in biotechnology, biophotonics, fusion, astrophysics, and technology for web development. He holds a Master of Education in education psychology from Brigham Young University and formerly was a school counselor on the White Mountain Apache Reservation.  

Stan Hiromi is Director of the UC Davis School of Education Edward Teller Education Center (ETEC). He has taught high school science for 25 years and was a Carnegie Scholar, Co-chair of the task force sponsored by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning and Chair of the California Teacher Advisory Council sponsored by the California Council for Science and Technology.

Disclaimer: This document, UCRL-AR-222287, was prepared as an account of work sponsored by an agency of the United States Government. Neither the United States Government nor the University of California nor any of their employees, makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information, apparatus, product, or process disclosed, or represents that its use would not infringe privately owned rights. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process, or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise, does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the United States Government or the University of California. The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government or the University of California, and shall not be used for the advertising or product endorsement purposes.

This work was performed under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy by University of California, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory under Contract W-7405-Eng-48.



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