“The best scientist is open to experience and begins with romance – the idea that anything is possible.” Ray Bradbury
Citizen science and working with STEM professionals in your classroom can both help in forging a connection between the world of school and the real world beyond the classroom walls, and they constitute a level of experience “doing” science that can build your confidence and credibility as a teacher in helping students understand what scientists do and how they think. But there is a way you can work even more directly as a scientist, side by side with other researchers, and contribute to the humankind’s ongoing acquisition of knowledge about the world. And doing so will give you rich experiences, deeper content knowledge, and a better understanding of the practices of scientists.
Research Experiences for Teachers
Carla Stone is a 6th grade Science and Social Studies teacher at Martin Luther King Literary and Fine Arts School in Evanston, Illinois. Last school year she entered her classroom on a cloud of exhilaration over her newly acquired skill-sets and with improved confidence as a teacher because of her summer experience with the Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program hosted at Northwestern University and funded by the National Science Foundation. (You can find other RET programs by clicking on the link above.)
As she embarked on her 16th year in School District 65 ready to teach 6th grade Earth Science, Pre-History and Ancient Civilizations for another year, Carla felt no fear that she wasn’t fresh and wouldn’t be engaging for her students because because she had experienced, in her words, “the most amazing summer research program of my life.”
The program Carla was part of is a partnership between Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago to conduct research on 19 monotypes and prints by the French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903).
You can read more about the technical aspects of Carla’s program on her blog post. But Carla’s takeaway from her stint as a researcher is inspiring. “At the end of my experience, I conducted 28 experiments and produced image sets that were sufficient enough for qualitative analysis. I was thrilled to have been a part of this amazing project! I lived the life of a research scientist for 8 glorious weeks. At the end of my experience I felt as if I were a full-fledged contributing member of this team. Also, along the way, I gained a deeper understanding of cultural heritage, art conservation science, and the history of computational imaging. More importantly I made some very great networking connections for my classroom. For example, NU-ACCESS would like to continue to work with my 6th grade students seeing if 11 year olds would be able to conduct RTI analysis on their own works of art! I am a middle school science teacher who can now walk the walk as I steer my young minds into fields of engineering and research! I loved my professional team of art scientists, and I will forever be grateful for this learning experience.”
Carla brought her insights from art science research into her classroom.
“As a result of my experience, I immediately started having my students ‘think like a scientist,’ and now I could model and articulate to them what that meant. Part of that was maintaining patience through observation and data collection. I was able to say ‘scientists are extremely patient.’ Sometimes you will get 24 errors before you get something right. I had to do 24 trials before I got an accurate image. It can’t upset you. You have to persevere. If I could teach my students these very essential skills about being a scientist, perhaps more of them would endeavor to pursue science careers. Kids and adults are too quick to give up. Thinking like a scientist lets you know it’s okay to be wrong and encourages you not to give up.”
Similarly Louise Huffman, a native-born Floridian whose favorite place to be is walking barefoot on a white sand beach, wound up in Antarctica. So how did a warm-blooded beachcomber like her skip all the way to the Antarctica? It’s not often that people can point to a moment in time that changed their lives, but in Louise’s case it happened in 1989 at the National Science Teachers’ convention. By chance she chose a session where polar explorer Will Steger spoke of his plans to cross the continent of Antarctica by dogsled. Louise admits at the time to knowing little more about Antarctica than its location at the South Pole, but Steger’s stories of the harsh climate and challenges he would have to meet were intriguing to her. He was at the convention to enlist teachers and students in an effort to raise people’s awareness about the fragile nature of the continent and the need for the continuation of the Antarctic Treaty to protect this wilderness. Louise was hooked and wanted to know more.
In 2002, Louise traveled to the Dry Valleys of Antarctica as a TEA (Teacher Experiencing Antarctica) and worked on the Stream Team. She and Jenny Baeseman, a member of that science team, have continued to work together on outreach efforts since that on-Ice experience. They both chaired subcommittees on the International Polar Year (2007-2011) Education and Outreach Committee. In 2007, when she retired from the classroom, Louise took a position with ANDRILL as Coordinator of Education and Public Outreach and was able to return to Antarctica.
Teachers Experiencing Antarctica (TEA) no longer exists. It has evolved into PolarTREC. The 2016-2017 application submission deadline is Tuesday, 8 September 2015 – 5:00 p.m. Alaska Daylight Time.”
Louise described her Antarctica adventure for this blog:
“Going on a research experience, for me, challenged me in ways I never would have guessed but made me grow as a result … physically, emotionally, cognitively, professionally. Being in such an extreme place added to those challenges. But what I learned was I am much stronger than I ever thought. My biggest lesson was that my limits are self-imposed, and I came away thinking ‘wow, I wish somebody had told me that when I was twelve.’ That lesson happened when I was driving an ATV across lake ice and the front end crashed into an ice hole. I knew my right wrist was broken and because of weather I couldn’t be flown out of our field camp to the base hospital right away. The next day a helicopter reached us and took me and another injured colleague, a man, to the hospital where Dr. Betty said, ‘You’re wrist is broken. I’ve got to put it in a cast and send you home.’ In my head, I picture a nice warm bed, my family all around me, a hot shower every day … but that thought warred with ‘I’ve wanted this so long, I need to stay.’ So I said, ‘Dr. Betty, you can’t send the girl with the cast back home and the boy with the cast back into the field.’ Dr. Betty said, ‘Oh, Louise, you’ve played the girl card, but can you do your job?’ The answer of course was yes, but with difficulty. Overcoming those difficulties allowed me to see that I was much stronger than I ever thought. There were many times when we were met with seemingly insurmountable challenges, but no one ever said ‘I can’t.’
That was such a huge lesson. That changed my thinking. From then on, I will try something before I will say ‘I can’t.’ That really and truly was my light bulb moment and something I share with kids. Every field experience is different but they are all transforming. I learned how scientists work. I had been teaching the process of science but as a rote list. But science is a living, breathing, evolving thing. It has all those parts but it’s much more than that. That’s what I teach my students.
And to fellow teachers I say, ‘Scientists need educators to work with them because while they are superb communicators with their peers, some are not good communicators with people outside their peer group. They need us because educators know how to communicate with a lot of different audiences. And educators ask good questions and get scientists to simplify down to the essence of their work, so it can be better communicated to non scientists.’
When I first applied to go to Antarctica, I looked at the enormous application and the time it would take to apply and I thought, ‘They’re not going to take me. I’m too old, too out of shape, have too many responsibilities at home,’ but then I thought, ‘I definitely won’t get chosen if I don’t apply. So, go for it!’ I would encourage other teachers who dream of having a similar field experience to search out opportunities and apply. If you don’t get accepted the first time, try again. These are highly competitive, and I’ve known teachers who have applied multiple times and not been chosen but kept at it and finally succeeded.”
Experiences like those Carla and Louise had, working as teachers alongside scientists, are life changing. Such experiences build confidence, provide great resources, knowledge, and stories for the classroom, and add an entire new level of expertise for teaching STEM. Walking the walk beats talking the talk if you want to drive up your authenticity quotient and inspire students by your example.
Opportunities are out there in abundance. Most are free. Some include stipends and classroom resources. Some are competitive and involve an application process. But if you get the opportunity, they are a gift that will keep on giving for the rest of your professional career. The National Science Foundation and the National Science Teachers Association are good starting points. Other government and state agencies, museums, zoos, nature centers, and universities are also worth investigating. Some offer shadowing opportunities or internships for teachers, or perhaps you could persuade them to. Partners in Inquiry, the STEM Institute website, lists field experiences and travel opportunities for teachers as well.
If you find these possibilities intriguing, start Googling. And if you know of other opportunities for teachers to do real world STEM, please let us know by posting information about them in the comments section.
You can learn more about STEM Institute here.