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MSPnet Blog: “Reading notes: Scientists and teachers in PD programs”

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posted November 20, 2015 – by Brian Drayton

It’s hard to keep up with the literature — even the samples that get posted, week after week, on MSPnet. Though this blog is dedicated to skimming the blogosphere for you, this week I am dipping into the MSPnet trove.
All the MSPs are predicated on the assumption that STEM teaching can be improved through programs involving practicing STEM researchers (scientists, mathematicians, engineers). But how should they be involved? And does this involvement have the hoped-for benefits?
A paper recently posted on MSPnet is interesting in this connection: “Peer instructor or college faculty — who is better for leading teacher PD?” (Ruiz et al.).  The MSP (CEEMS: The Cincinnati Engineering Enhanced Mathematics and Science Program) seeks to improve middle- and high-school teachers’ capacities to integrate engineering content and practices into their science ed. The paper reports on teacher surveys at the end of heir summer workshops in 2012, 2013, and 2014 — in some sessions of which engineering faculty are leading the PD, and in some, master teachers are.  The workshops focus on both content and pedagogy, and the instructors are all given quite a bit of preparation before they start their work.

I won’t summarize the paper in detail, but some main findings are that both the IHE faculty and the master teachers were (in the teachers’ minds) effective and motivating.  However, even on the score of content knowledge, the master teachers had somewhat of an edge, and they were (surprise!) more effective in the sessions emphasizing pedagogy — and (my conjecture) probably presented even the core engineering content with some sensitivity to the pedagogical dimensions.  The authors write:

We can only conclude that for K-12 professional development programs, experienced high school instructors should receive equal consideration for leading these programs. Two primary factors that suggest consideration of experienced high school instructors are: 1) high school instructors have a much better understanding of the context of the K-12 setting than faculty, and 2) their experience in the K-12 setting enables high school instructors to more effectively model the pedagogies than most faculty.

In the waning years of the last century, Joni Falk and I published a study about teacher-scientist collaborations (here, behind a paywall alas, but you could contact me for a copy) which in the lit review catalogued leading models of scientist participation in teacher ed.  These were:  [1] The scientist is a member of a curriculum development effort; [2] The scientist is a deliverer of content in a teacher PD course;  [3] The scientist is a visitor to the classroom, or available for Q&A;  [4] The scientist is part of a collaborative partnership with teachers (and possibly students) on a project or activity;  [5] The scientist acts as a mentor to teachers-as-scientists, who maybe are spending the summer in the lab or field, as a research assistant.

When we were designing the first version of MSPnet, we reviewed the proposals from the first-generation projects, and looked for their model of scientist involvement.  They pretty much fell into these 5 categories, most commonly  [1] and [2].  Most projects ever since have (in my annual, informal scan of newly funded projects– More research needed!) have followed the same pattern.

Much great work has been done in all these projects, and (as the Ruiz paper makes clear) when IHE faculty play these “expert” roles, but do it out of a strong and informed interest in K-12 science education, they bring much value.  But I have always felt that one element of durable PD that is not dependent on grants and other “special” interventions is the vision of STEM teachers as part of the STEM community, in a continuum with the “professionals,” that is, the women and men whose primary focus is research and the training of new scientists, engineers, etc.  In addition to seeking and training “ambassadors” or consultant/advisors,  from IHE to the K-12 classroom, we need to be on the lookout for (and encouraging the emergence of), more brokers between the two communities — IHE faculty who become knowledgable about the contexts and constraints of K-12 education, but also teachers with solid experience with  STEM research, as well as the content of their field as a growing and flexible fabric.

This strand of continuing teacher growth would require its own kinds of PD;  but there are examples of success out there which could be transformed with some research and experimentation from exemplars to models.  Such a strand of teacher learning is one way to bring alive our desire for “school science” that is a lot more like “real science”  in spirit and practice(s).

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hidden collaborations

posted by: Louise Wilson on 11/21/2015 7:21 am

Perhaps the latter strategies don't appear in the literature because they don't require funding: I use several visiting scientists in my classroom, but because it is "private" - I ask people I know who would be appropriate for the curriculum, they come in because they are kind - it's not tracked, I don't have to justify it to anybody, and there's no "before" and "after" testing. I call it education :-)

RE: Hidden collaborations

posted by: Brian Drayton on 11/23/2015 5:27 am

Louise, you're probably not alone. A lot of scientists love the chance to make this kind of visit, at least occasionally, and it can often be really valuable and enjoyable.
The focus of my post, though, is on scientists' role(s) in *teacher learning -- For example, you may have a good connection with some of these visitors which might mean you can turn to them to help you think about the curriculum (or the "practices") or science content, or plan new activities. Or the science teachers in your school bring a scientist in to work on a specific topic? Or maybe your MSP helps make such collaborations between teachers and scientists (among other roles the scientists may take)?

scientists with Teacher PD

posted by: Joseph Gardella on 11/23/2015 9:14 am

Hi Brian:
ISEP's PD model is based on extensive teacher/scientist collaborations in interdisciplinary (as opposed to traditional disciplinary) research. While we cite the RET results, we knew that our work in a high needs school district required wrap around support services to supplement and support the summer research based PD. (ISEP works at 12 high needs Buffalo Public Schools, half middle schools and half high schools.). Wrap around includes our model of service learning undergraduates and masters students (not all of them are STEM students, by the way), and a full time Ph.D. student in each of the 12 schools plus a few floater Ph.D. students that help teachers in multiple schools in priority topics (e.g. Geographic Information Analysis, Computer Science and Engineering...Genomics).

We think the research model has much to recommend, although it's failings have also been documented, but rather than engage the teacher as an entry level researcher only, we seek the teacher to work with the scientist (STEM faculty member, industry researcher, medical researcher, etc.) on designing and implementing class room materials. Building communities between these groups has been easy here in Buffalo. I am so grateful for my colleagues across all our partners who have really been motivated by working with teachers. We also have a leadership model for teachers by having coordinating teachers in each building...who receive a year round stipend.

In any event, the model works when the scientist see the teacher as a professional who can lead the development and implementation of classroom materials, align them with standards and the curriculum at the appropriate grade levels and deliver them to the students, and are willing to help year round with visits to the classroom.

Your points about a mediator/assistant play well when the grads and undergrads in the schools are working with the teachers on delivery also.

We have not published yet on the model, but have three years of data on increases in teacher learning, on their understanding of interdisciplinary research, and have had three Ph.D. dissertations in Science Ed that have documented much of this work.

So I definitely believe in the model and also believe that workshops also can complement these activities, but leadership of the teacher in a real research collaboration means respecting the professional knowledge of the teacher and not treating them as a junior researcher.

Hope that contributes.

Best Regards to everyone for a Happy Thanksgiving!

Joseph A. Gardella, Jr.
SUNY Distinguished Professor and
John and Frances Larkin Professor of Chemistry
University at Buffalo, SUNY

Director, Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership (ISEP) with Buffalo Public Schools