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Ways You Can Help (Eckelmeyer, 1995)

Help Teachers Implement Inquiry-Based Science Activities

Students learn best not from textbooks or lectures, but from interesting activities in which they get to do hands-on experiments and discover key principles for themselves. Many courses, however, remain essentially devoid of meaningful hands-on activities and discovery experiences. You can help teachers implement such activities with their classes.

Worried that you do not have the creativity, education background, or time to develop these yourself? That’s just as well, because many activities have already been developed, tested, and refined. These are almost always better than the ones that we scientists and engineers concoct. Excellent sources of ideas for hands-on K-12 science activities can be found under "Ideas and Resources." Help teachers become familiar with these, as well as with hands-on discovery-based programs being implemented at other schools.

Perhaps you could arrange for your employer, a group of local professional society chapters, or a service group to establish a science education resource center for your community and to purchase some of these materials for it. Then you could help teachers discover and use these resources in their classes. You should do this in close collaboration with the school system, which may already have a resource center that you could help strengthen. Be sure that the materials you purchase are pertinent to the curriculum and that you involve teachers in their selection. Otherwise, they are likely to end up collecting dust.

Many hands-on activities require supplies and simple equipment. Schools frequently have very limited budgets for such purchases. Your resource center can make such items available. Some of them might have to be purchased, but many can be acquired by simply alerting local companies and technical professionals to the types of items that the school would find useful and asking that they donate surplus items to the resource center rather than discarding them.

Some supplies and equipment are typically available at the school, but are often poorly organized, not working, or not well understood by the teachers. You can help by inventorying these items, fixing them, and conducting seminars or writing instructions on how to use them.

Complete inquiry-based science curricula are even better than individual hands-on activities. Such curricula are available from a number of sources, including the Office of Science Education at the National Institutes of Health and are being adopted by an increasing number of school systems. (See "Ideas and Resources" for additional sources.) You could help introduce teachers to these curricula and advocate for their adoption in your community.

These curricula typically provide everything teachers need to lead their students in hands-on activities in which they discover key scientific principles for themselves. Background information, instructions, discussion guides, and even suggestions for assessing student progress are included. In addition, sometimes kits are provided that contain enough equipment, supplies, and student guides for the entire class to conduct each activity. Classes are typically broken into pairs or small groups of students so that everyone gets directly involved in each activity. In addition, each topic area is subdivided into sequential activities that students do over time. This facilitates the systematic development, application, and reinforcement of knowledge over an extended period. Perhaps most importantly, students experience the process of science as they are conducting these activities. This promotes the development of logical thinking skills in the context of their investigations of specific science topics.

Help Teachers Understand Technical Subject Matter

Many elementary teachers are not only unfamiliar with science, they are intimidated by it. As a result, they avoid teaching it as much as possible. The good news is that most of them recognize their weakness in this area, are eager to improve, and welcome whatever assistance is available and proves to be useful.

One way you can contribute is to help elementary and middle school teachers become comfortable with the relevant principles and applications of science topics scheduled to be covered in their classes. This can be done one-on-one, but it’s even better in a group tutorial or workshop setting, provided various classes (or the entire school) coordinate their science curricula. It’s essential that you keep the discussion at a level that the teachers can clearly understand and enjoy and that’s appropriate to the age level and interests of their students. Your efforts will be counterproductive if you reinforce their preconception that science is very hard and that one needs to have a Ph.D. to understand it.

A frequently effective format is to engage the teachers in a hands-on project — something that they can take back and use in their classrooms. Students learn best when they are actively involved in hands-on activities, and so do teachers. The most effective projects are ones that fit nicely into the curriculum and district requirements.

For example, if next month's science topic is magnetism, you could lead a workshop in which teachers do experiments to determine the effects of various parameters (wire length, voltage, and core material) on the strengths of electromagnets (how many washers or paperclips are picked up). Following this, you could answer questions the teachers have about magnetism, perhaps giving them a brief tutorial on the subject. You could then give them the materials they need to conduct this activity with their students as well as ideas for other possible activities.

Teacher workshops must be relevant and demonstrate how to use scientific principles in practical applications. For most people, teachers included, interesting and relevant applications provide the hook that stimulates initial interest in a topic. If your workshops concentrate totally on theory and underlying principles, they will be unmotivational and boring. If you couple scientific principles with interesting and relevant applications, your workshops will not only be much more interesting, they will also model a method for providing motivational science instruction to students.

These workshops should also be convenient to attend. They could be held at school, free of charge, and reasonable in length (one hour to one day). Ideally, your company would pay for substitute teachers to enable the classroom teachers to participate. Printed background materials can also be developed, copied, and distributed to the teachers in conjunction with the workshop. Such assistance to teachers has proven to be particularly effective when it’s combined with exciting in-class student activities in which technical professionals reinforce the content being covered by the teachers. See "Working Effectively with Students."

Familiarize Teachers with Science Careers

While high school teachers usually have much less need for assistance with science content, they frequently need information on relevant applications and interesting career opportunities related to their subjects. You, your co-workers, and your institution or company can provide this by means of periodic seminars, lab and/or facility tours, personal meetings, part-time or summer employment, or various combinations of these. In larger communities, science teachers from all area high schools can be encouraged to take part in these activities.

Interactions with high school teachers can usually be carried on at a substantially higher technical level than is appropriate for elementary school teachers. They should, however, remain focused on the big picture and on relevant applications, rather than getting bogged down in technical details and esoteric issues. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that only "the latest and greatest" applications will stimulate interest. Some of the most captivating topics are those that provide clear demonstrations of how scientific principles are used to solve scientifically "mundane" but socially relevant problems, such as increasing the crash resistance of cars, reducing or detoxifying hazardous waste, and so on.

Teachers are frequently interested in hearing about the nature of your work and what science principles are involved in it, particularly after you have developed a good rapport with them. Explaining your work to them, however, usually is not the best place to start.

Help Teachers Access Information and Expertise

Teachers are often eager to supplement their classroom activities with interesting presentations, demonstrations, field trips, and other curriculum enrichment programs but don’t know where or how to find such assistance. In addition, they sometimes have students with particular interests or questions who would benefit greatly from contact with specialists in the appropriate technical areas; students with ideas for science fair projects who need assistance, advice, or access to specialized knowledge or equipment; students who are struggling and need tutoring; female or ethnic minority students who need empathetic mentors and role models; and so on. Many individuals, companies, and professional societies would gladly provide these kinds of support but don’t know what or where the needs are.

You can help by linking the teachers and their needs with the appropriate individuals, groups, and resources in your community. Find out which people in your workplace or local professional society chapter are interested in supporting science education and how they are willing to help. Then create and publicize a way to connect the needs with the resources. On a national scale, many professional societies are becoming increasingly interested in K-12 education and are developing resources that could fit some of these needs. You can access these through your society's K-12 education coordinator, or through organizations listed in "Ideas and Resources."

Help Introduce Activities That Develop Science Process Skills

Specific content is not the only thing that teachers and students need to learn about science. Perhaps even more importantly, they need to learn about the process of science: how hypotheses are constructed and tested, how information is evaluated and logical conclusions drawn from it, how risks are assessed in terms of probability and statistics, how priorities are set as a result of cost-benefit analysis, etc.

While a relatively small fraction of today's students will need to know Newton's laws as adults, they will all need an appreciation for these science process skills in order to be intelligent shoppers and rational shapers of public policy. The alternative is a public that makes decisions based strictly on who has the slickest advertising or can make the most emotionally appealing argument.

You can help teachers recognize the importance of science process and engage their classes in activities that develop logical thinking skills. Experiments in which students have to think about what conclusions can be drawn from their observations are outstanding in this regard. You can help teachers learn to engage and lead their students in thinking through information, developing sound conclusions, and identifying faulty logic. Many individual activities and inquiry-based curricula lend themselves very well to such processes.

Talk about science process will not have much effect if you inadvertently reinforce the misconception that scientists can provide correct answers to every question they’re asked. Admit to teachers that you don’t know the answers to some questions. One of the best ways to encourage teachers to engage in science process is to model it in the way you interact with them. Instead of providing answers to all their questions, engage them in simple experiments through which they can discover the answers for themselves. Guide them as they process data and observations, seeking to identify the appropriate conclusions. Help them see that not all experiments lead to a unique conclusion and eliminate all alternative hypotheses. Allow them to go down some blind alleys and struggle with confusing results, then tell them about how this also happens to you in your technical work. Encourage their understanding that negative results are not necessarily failures since from them we also learn &mdsah; in this case, that we need to develop a different hypothesis. In short, guide them in experiences where they are doing science, and encourage them to do likewise with their students.

Help Teachers Engage Parents and the Community

Many problems in U.S. education stem from society's tacit assumption that education begins and ends in the classroom and that teachers and schools are solely responsible for its success or failure. Imagine the educational impact of parents and children doing interesting projects and experiments at home to complement the science topics being covered in school. You could help organize such efforts through the local parent-teacher-student organization and assist by either developing activities or accessing programs that are commercially available.

One of the reasons teachers hesitate to do hands-on, discovery-based activities in class is that many of them require small groups, each with adult guidance. You could organize a program through which parents volunteer to serve periodically as classroom assistants to facilitate such activities.

How about establishing a hands-on science museum in your community, or helping teachers access an existing one? Or getting the Chamber of Commerce or a group of companies to provide financial support to send teacher representatives to science education training events, or providing rewards for teaching excellence? Or getting your local Boy Scout, Girl Scout, or 4-H group involved in some exciting technology-oriented events? The possibilities are limited only by your imagination!

Advocate for District- or State Science Education Reform

Are there teachers in your area who are doing hands-on, inquiry-based science in their classrooms but are having trouble getting this approach more broadly accepted in the district? You can provide a great service by actively supporting them at meetings with their principals, district administrators, and school boards. Tell these individuals that you learned science most effectively when you actually did it, rather than when you just read about it. Help them understand how students can learn skills such as logical thinking and teamwork in the context of inquiry-based science lessons. As a technical professional, your experiences and opinions carry a lot of weight with these policy-making individuals and groups, particularly if you've also invested some of your time working with teachers or students and if you're knowledgeable about the constructivist reform movement. For help with serving as an advocate, contact the Office of Science Education of the National Institutes of Health (ose@science.education.nih.gov). The National Science Resources Center External Web Site Policy and the National Research Council External Web Site Policy can provide additional guidance and resources.

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