Teach: A Learner-Centered Approach to Professional Development
Connecting Teachers and Science
By Lee Schmitt
It began with a casual query at a teacher conference. It was March 1994,
and 100 physical science teachers from around the state were meeting at
the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM), in St. Paul. At the time, SMM hosted
four teacher conferences a year, in partnership with the Minnesota Science
Teachers Association (MnSTA).
John Olson, a member of the
conference organizing committee (and later a nominee for ASTC's Honor
Roll of Teachers), pulled me aside after one of the sessions. "Our
school board just passed a resolution that requires geologic time, paleontology,
and evolution to be introduced to students in the fourth, fifth, and sixth
grades," he said. "Our district's curriculum team needs to develop
a plan and train a lot of teachers. Can the science museum help?"
It was the first time that
SMM had been formally asked to serve as a school district's partner in
an education initiative. Within months, SMM Teacher Programs had contracted
to present three weeklong institutes for educators from the St. Paul Public
Schools. Participants in that first summer program, Life Through the
Ages, compared chicken bones to dinosaur mounts at the museum, experienced
hands-on investigations, interacted with paleontologists, hunted fossils,
focused their understanding of biological evolution, and planned for the
integration of new topics into their science curricula.
After that summer, we never
looked back. Life Through the Ages was repeated for two more years,
eventually giving way to new topics. Today, in the course of a typical
year, SMM Teacher Programs provides 10 to 14 contracted and grant-funded
summer programs, six discipline-specific conferences, more than 60 workshops
requested by individual schools, and as many as five extended projects
working directly with teachers in the classroom. This article will highlight
what we've learned in the past decade and offer some pointers for museums
looking to upgrade their teacher programs.
Understanding the teacher audience
At SMM, a major focus of our
programs for educators is how to use museum resources as an integral part
of classroom curriculum. Teachers may not realize the many ways that museums
and science centers can support almost any science topic. Such resources
include not only exhibits, specimens, and artifacts, but also access to
scientists, teaching materials, and professionals who can help plan field
trips, answer questions, and design and present professional development.
Every SMM program for teachers demonstrates both the powerful enrichment
value of an informal institution and the effective use of museum resources.
In an earth sciences workshop offered by the Science Museum of Minnesota, teachers learn strategies for using the "outdoor classroom."
Photo courtesy SMM
To be successful in working
with teachers and schools, your museum staff must speak their language
and understand their needs. You must become conversant with state and
national standards, assessments, current educational research, and classroom
pedagogy, and design your programs to meet the needs of diverse teacher
Before you start, ask yourselves
these questions: Where and what does this group of teachers teach? What
are the ages and backgrounds of their students? What are the teachers'
backgrounds? What is the political environment of the school? What are
the specific needs of the curriculum? Most importantly, how can we best
present science content to adult learners while modeling the teaching
strategies we want them to use with their students?
Building successful programs
In every workshop or institute offered by SMM Teacher Programs, we strive
to include six elements:
time for reflection
The ideal teacher institute
meets for 10 consecutive days and includes at least two follow-up workshops
during the school year. This extended time frame allows teachers room
to build sustainable networks, process new information, practice new
teaching strategies, and plan for direct implementation into their curriculum
and classroom practice.
Inquiry is a complex approach
to science that takes time to learn. If teachers are to use the process
effectively with students, they must be immersed in it themselves. We
model inquiry strategies in every teacher program. Participants learn
content and skills through the process of discovery and through framing
their own questions.
All of our workshops and
institutes are built around the practical needs of the classroom. Before
anything else, we are teachers helping teachers teach. Yes, we discuss
educational philosophy, research, and standards, but we also talk about
what those things mean when you are face-to-face with 35 students: How
does this apply to your classroom? Why is it important to you as an
educator? How will it affect your students' achievement? Teachers know
that our programs have value and direct relevance to their work.
Reflective practice is a
key to professional growth. To better understand their teaching and
the learning styles of their students, teachers need to reflect on their
own learning. In our workshops, every learning situation is processed
thoroughly. We ask teachers to wear their student hats while we explore
science content, and then ask them to put on their teacher hats to think
about the investigation: What did you learn? How was the investigation
managed? What would you change if you did this with your students? Why?
What did we do for assessment? What is the scope and sequence used for
this program? Educators enjoy the opportunity to analyze a learning
situation and go behind the scenes on the planning and presentation.
Teachers work in groups to transform what they've learned into classroom curriculum.
Photo courtesy SMM
The ideal program also includes
some kind of reality check. Whenever possible, we arrange a field trip
to a local research-based business where teachers can experience a direct
application of the science they teach. Inevitably, teachers discover here
why students need to develop inquiry process skills.
A key part of working with teachers is making the leap to practical curriculum
integration. Every teacher who attends one of our workshops takes home
a product. Participants work in cooperative groups to plan the direct
implementation of their ideas and discoveries and use a template to outline
their plans for incorporating new topics, themes, or content into their
curriculum. We also often provide up to $100 per teacher toward the purchase
of supplies for student investigations.
Marketing your programs
At SMM, our marketing philosophy
is simple. It's all about connections-about developing a professional
network with teachers, school administrators, state education organizations,
higher education, and our own museum staff.
We don't send out flyers
listing upcoming workshops and hope that teachers will register. Rather,
we use our connections to market programs directly to school district
administrators and staff development committees. This allows us to tailor
programs to individual needs and be involved in a school's professional
development planning over several years.
SMM continues to host conferences
for teachers. Along with exhibition and film previews, these events
make us visible to schools, foster a sense of comfort with the museum,
and help participants become familiar with available resources.
Like many ASTC members,
SMM has built a reputation
for high-quality, sustained, teacher-focused professional development.
As a result of our many collaborations, staff from SMM Teacher Programs
now serve on the MnSTA Board of Directors and the St. Paul Schools Science
Advisory Committee. We also act as state coordinators for the Minnesota
network of Building a Presence for Science, the new systemic-reform
initiative of the National Science Teachers Association.
A bonus for the museum is
that by actively representing our mission of inviting learners of all
ages to experience their changing world through science, SMM Teacher
Programs serve the entire institution. Classroom teachers interact with
hundreds of thousands of students and parents, providing a vital bridge
to the public understanding of science. They are an essential link in
expanding science center and museum audiences.
Meeting new challenges
Education does not stand
still. Local politics, national policy, economics, and social perspectives
affect what goes on in our schools. With passage of the No Child Left
Behind legislation by the U.S. Congress in 2001, the Eisenhower funds
that once helped sustain professional development in science teaching
are gone. Schools still receive professional development funding under
the Title II Improving Teacher Quality Act, but these funds are not
designated specifically for science and math.
It remains to be seen what
effect this will have on teacher professional development programs at
science centers and museums. At SMM, we will be working with our education
partners to maintain programs for teachers while creating new products
to meet schools' changing needs. The professional development bridge
that connects teachers to science centers may have lost its traditional
source of funding, but we hope the infrastructure supporting it will
be strong enough to weather the change.
Lee Schmitt is director
of SMM Teacher Programs at the Science Museum of Minnesota; team members
include Nils Halker and Dawn Cameron. To learn more, visit www.smm.org,
or write to email@example.com.