It’s no secret that Inquiry Science Institute is a big fan of Bozeman, Montana, science teacher Paul Andersen. For the past several months, we’ve been watching and posting his fantastic videos covering all of the Next Generation Science Standards on the Golden Apple iTEAMchicago Facebook page. Recently I contacted Paul about doing an interview for this blog. His response was a quick Yes! And he returned his answers to my questions in record time, offering some encouraging words for teachers as well as inspiration to try new things.
A bit of background. Paul Andersen has been teaching high school science for the past nineteen year, the first seven teaching all the science classes at a small rural school in northern Montana. Currently he is a science teacher and technology specialist at Bozeman High School.
Having graduated from Montana State University with a degree in Biology with Broadfield Science Certification, Paul went on to earn a Masters of Science in Science Education. He serves on the Board of Directors for the Montana Learning Center and is also the program coordinator for the Springtime in the Rockies conference.
Paul was the 2011 Montana Teacher of the Year, and was also one of four finalists for the 2011 National Teacher of the Year. Paul was recently selected as a YouTube Edu Guru.
Why teaching? Why science teaching? What set you on this course in life?
My grandmother, father, sister, and several cousins were teachers as well. There may be a genetic component involved but I have always been around teachers. My father was a math professor at the local university and worked with future and current math teachers. I can remember helping him out with educational conferences when I was very young. Personal computers were becoming a very big deal and he was showing teachers how they could use these new tools to improve education. I can still remember much of the Logo programming language from that time. My love for science goes back even farther. My mother remembers me continually asking questions about nature when I was young. They bought me a series of informational science books when I was young that kept me busy for hours. When I was in college I bounced from major to major for several years before ending up in education. I can remember finding success in my science methods class on the first day. It just seemed natural.
Who are some of your science heroes and why?
When I started teaching I immediately fell in love with physics. From Newton to Einstein the stories of the scientists that defined our current understanding were fascinating to me as an early science teacher. I have always been fascinated by Richard Feynman. His ability to make complex material understandable and his unwavering curiosity continue to impress me to this day. I eventually came to love biology, evolution, and the work of Charles Darwin. Natural selection is simply one of the most elegant ideas science has ever produced.
If you were charged with redesigning schooling, what would it look like?
The one thing I have learned through my years as a teacher is humility. When I started teaching I felt like I had all the answers and I would have responded with a list of changes that I felt would work. The correct (and sometimes unsatisfying answer) is that there is not one right way to redesign schools. The only requirement is amazing teachers. If we can put amazing teachers in our schools with freedom to experiment we can achieve amazing things. Sadly our society doesn’t realize that this will take time and commitment. Finland is just now beginning to reap the rewards of investing in teachers two decades after they began down that path. I don’t think we have that kind of attention span in the states.
Which book, film, or experience would you recommend all teachers of science read, see, or have?
Books and films are important but they can never replace experiencing the world. The defining trip that I took was our first trip to the Galapagos Islands and Amazon Rainforest. If you can make it work bring students somewhere and experience the wonder of learning with them. As a science teacher I also feel that it is important to do science. I was able to spend two summers in a biofilms lab at MSU were I learned two things. 1) Research is wonderfully complex and extends well beyond the scientific method. 2) I would rather be a science teacher than a scientist.
You make amazing videos for your students and for other teachers and make it seem so natural. How did you develop your expertise? What advice do you have for other teachers in how best to incorporate instructional technology into their teaching?
Like anything in life the most important step is the first one. No one will see my first videos. They were awful but they served an important purpose. They allowed me to try new things, receive feedback and iterate. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Make something and put it out there. Learners are a very appreciative and helpful group. Instructional technology can make your room more effective but it should not replace good teaching. I use technology to free me up to work with students in smaller groups on information that requires more work.
What message about science education do you want to communicate to anyone who will listen? Arne Duncan, for example, or Bill Gates.
I would honestly rather spend time talking with other teachers than talking to either of them. I would like to have them each spend a couple of weeks teaching in my class (and other teacher’s) classrooms. It might give them the perspective that is missing in the current debates on education reform.
You are taking a sabbatical next school year. What are your thoughts on teachers more widely having that opportunity?
You will have to ask me that question after next year.
My thanks to Paul Andersen for responding to these questions. Be sure to visit Paul’s website at http://www.bozemanscience.com. You’ll find a great many very helpful resources there, including videos explaining each of the Next Generation Science Standards with suggestions for what to teach at various grade levels. They are a gift to busy teachers. Some include links to sites offering further information or activities.
You can learn more about Golden Apple’s Inquiry Science Institute here: http://www.goldenapple.org/inquiry-science-institute