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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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