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While it’s common for many teachers to have a scientist visit their classroom once or twice a year, some teachers have formed long-term partnerships that enable scientists to spend significant time with their students. Cindy Hopkins, science teacher at Kaffie Middle School in Corpus Christi, Texas, met one of her scientist partners— Janel Ortiz, a graduate student from Texas A&M University-Kingsville (TAMUK)—at a professional development session on quail that Ortiz led at TAMUK. “There is no extra money for field trips, so I actively seek science professionals to come to my class and connect students with real-world science,” Hopkins explains.
“This past spring, I had Janel come to my class [twice a week for two months] and teach a unit about quail (her area of expertise)…Researchers and scientists are another voice for my students, and they pay more attention [to them],” Hopkins contends.
“Janel brought good binoculars, and my students used them…to [examine] bird bands…She asked students to give her evidence, and taught them how to do it…When [scientists do] this, students make connections from the classroom to the field,” Hopkins maintains.
“I did activities alongside the students. They got to see me as a learner. I asked questions to help students connect her material with what I’ve taught them,” she relates. Having Ortiz teach the unit also “allowed me to sit down with students that need one-on-one attention and connect with them,” she notes.
David Lockett, middle-level science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teacher at Edward W. Bok Academy in Lake Wales, Florida, benefitted when Principal Damien Moses helped bring Keith Young, CEO of Detroit-based Ecotek—a research organization promoting science education and careers for students ages 10 to 17 (www.ecotek-us.com)—to the city’s charter school system for two semesters. Young co-taught “and deliver[ed] lessons on citrus greening and alternative battery and fuel options with our STEM classes,” says Lockett. “We had a community need because a plant and tree disease was affecting citrus crops.”
Young even took some middle school and high school students to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Lab for Genetic Research Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. “Students made bactericide and did directional drone studies of infected trees. [The trip] showed students how something in Florida could also affect the rest of the country and the world,” Lockett reports.
“In grad school, one of my friends was working on his thesis and was required to do outreach as part of his own graduate work. That school year, Dr. J. P. Trasatti ( J.P.) came to my classroom to share his research with the students,” recalls Nichole Mantas, a biology teacher in New York, “then he and I designed a hands-on activity to simulate his research. He had been worked similar[ly] to a zipper in the blood-brain barrier,” Mantas notes.
“In recent years, J.P. has moved on from his graduate work, and our lessons have changed as well…For two years, J.P. came [to my classroom] and shared how tissue engineering works,” she relates. “It helped engage a group of students who might have just considered science a hobby.”
Scientist in the Classroom, a program of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, connects scientists with middle and high school teachers “because teachers feel more confident teaching potentially contentious issues” like climate change and evolution “with a scientist [there] to answer questions,” says program coordinator Claire Adrian-Tucci. Early career scientists, such as graduate students and postdocs, participate because they “tend to have more flexible schedules,” she points out.
After the program’s required two visits, some teachers continue their conversations with the scientists, often via Skype, Adrian-Tucci notes.
“Teachers need to plan ahead and communicate with scientists,” she advises. “Don’t set your goals too high; find a fun activity, and get everyone involved.”
The New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) Scientist-in-Residence program matches scientists from all disciplines with public school teachers in New York City, Syracuse, and Utica. Scientists commit to 10 hours a month, January through May. “Teachers are becoming more comfortable with outside experts visiting. Scientists can seem intimidating, [but we’re finding they’re] more welcome than in years past,” says NYAS Director of Education Kristian Breton.
The program’s graduate students and postdocs “are interested in checking out possible teaching careers. [About] 10–15% of [these] scientists go into teaching,” he notes.
Schools chosen to participate “are [located] 35–40 minutes from where the scientist lives or works” to spare scientists a long commute, Breton explains.
In Vanderbilt University’s Scientist in the Classroom Partnership Program, scientists work in classrooms in the Nashville, Tennessee, area “one full day per week all year,” says program director Jennifer Ufnar. Scientists have “run competitions (middle school), developed PBL [Problem-Based Learning] units, infused science across the curriculum, started science clubs, pushed science into other disciplines, infused inquiry-based science and PBL across the school, and co-taught curriculum they’ve developed with the teachers,” she reports.
In addition to taking teachers to meetings and conferences at universities, “fellows provide an extra set of hands, plus materials and kits. It takes a load off the teachers,” she asserts.
A Scientist’s Advice
Retired scientist and engineer Rick McMaster of Austin, Texas, regularly visits classes. The first teacher who invited him “provided all the details— schedule, location, asked what I needed, etc.—to minimize the effort on my part,” McMaster recalls.
Teachers should support visiting scientists with “logistics, materials (if needed), [and] classroom discipline. They should arrive early to meet the visitor,” he emphasizes.
Teachers should also “follow-up with feedback. Thank-you notes from the students go a long way. The local administration should also provide encouragement for a long-term relationship,” he stresses.
And be sure to invite students’ parents who are scientists, McMaster suggests, because some “continue to visit…even after their children are no longer there.”