Teachers crouch down; some spread out on the carpet, others lean over, straining to see from their seats a few feet away as SPAWAR scientist Dr. John deGrassie first shines a flashlight through a rectangular box of water and then a green laser beam a few minutes later.
These middle and high school science teachers, part of a group of 26, are learning about some of deGrassie’s naval research on particle scattering, used to pinpoint where lasers are coming from when pointed at naval aircraft. Meanwhile in an adjacent room, another nine teachers sit at a table intrigued with SPAWAR neuroscientist Matt Yanagi’s efforts to “move objects with your mind.”
San Diego Unified School District and Sweetwater Union High School District science teachers, along with a team of four naval scientists from SPAWAR SYSTEMS Center, spent two days together in July laughing, learning, networking and ultimately designing new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) aligned lessons for San Diego secondary students.
The Next Generation Science Teacher Leaders Institute is a pilot effort of the UC San Diego CREATE STEM Success Initiative, led by UC San Diego’s Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence (CREATE), San Diego Science Project (SDSP), SPAWAR, and science leadership from the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) and Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD). Funded by a generous $28,000 gift from Building Engineering & Science Talent (BEST) to UC San Diego’s CREATE, the sponsorship supports an extraordinary opportunity for collaboration among the university, industry, and K-12 community. The work is piloting a way to bring the expertise of professional scientists in San Diego together with that of our region’s middle and high school science teachers, to craft innovative lessons to educate the region’s students in STEM.
“The NGSS require teachers to teach students about how science actually happens,” said Michael Goodbody, SDUSD science resource teacher, “but few teachers have ever worked as scientists in a lab or within industry. Teachers need and want deeper interactions with scientists who do this type of work every day in order to understand that world and take that understanding back to their classrooms. UC San Diego is helping us provide these rich experiences for our teachers.”
The two-day institute and subsequent three-day follow-up sessions also offer a critical effort to share NGSS learning opportunities across two districts’ boundaries. Although SDUSD and SUHSD share a border and sometimes share students, teachers seldom have the chance to collaborate at the instructor level. Six lesson study groups formed during the institute are largely a mix of teachers from both districts – by design – who will continue to work together after the institute to further integrate, develop and hone NGSS lessons and classroom strategies.
“We wanted to give these two districts a chance to learn not only with their own teachers and researchers, but to learn from each other,” said Susan Yonezawa, CREATE’s associate director. “Collaboration and cross fertilization of ideas and talents are so helpful for moving work forward — and because we know so many amazing educators in both districts, we wanted them to know each other.”
The SPAWAR SYSTEM Center’s scientists who came and spent two days with the teachers were the stars of the show in the teachers’ minds. In addition to deGrassie and Yanagi’s work, SPAWAR scientist Ken Richter presented his research on extracting electrical energy from mud and sediment deep in the ocean floor. Teachers gathered around and handled the small mud-filled model fuel cell with its flickering light, and asked Ken questions about his current work — trying to figure out if the fuel cell he and his team has built will work at 15,000 feet, their current testing level. (The scientists already know it works in shallower waters.) Teachers also puzzled over SPAWAR scientist and UCSD alum Jim Rohr’s research, studying the hydrodynamics of dolphins to help the navy design and build faster submarines.
“Teachers are now incorporating a visit from SPAWAR researchers into their classroom science curriculum,” said Dominga Sanchez, engineering education coordinator for the CREATE STEM Success Initiative and a co-facilitator for the institute. “Lesson study – designing and practicing a lesson – is the next phase of this work. At the institute, it was great to see the researchers excited about visiting classes, meeting students and becoming part of the actual teacher-designed science lessons.”
SDSP Director Kathryn Schulz, who helped to coordinate and run the institute, described the two-day institute and follow up days as “very powerful,” noting how enlightening it was to watch two districts come together and learn from each other.
“We plan to continue to support the institute teachers by helping lead the small teacher teams through lesson study to help design lessons from the researchers’ work,” Schulz said. In this cycle, small teams of teachers now will finish planning NGSS-aligned lessons with one researcher as advisor, then visit each other’s classrooms to see each other try out the lesson with real students — and then refine.
Melanie Villanueva, chemistry teacher at Chula Vista High School, attended the Teacher Leaders Institute as a teacher participant. She worked with other science teachers and Dr. deGrassie to plan a lesson and later observe it together. She also served as her group’s facilitator since she has experience facilitating lesson study groups for other CREATE-related projects and her district.
“I’ve found the lesson study process to be such a meaningful way for teachers to work together to bring authentic, local science into their own classrooms,” Villanueva said. “Our group’s lesson on ‘developing and using scientific models’ provided me with deeper insight into the NGSS practices and allowed me to share and discuss ideas with other science teachers, which unfortunately doesn’t happen all that often. Weeks later, being able to watch our NGSS-aligned lesson take place in two different classrooms is now an invaluable experience. It is allowing us to discuss what concepts students struggle with, what misconceptions they have, and most importantly, how they are making sense of the scientific world.”
Piloting ways to connect university and industry researchers with teachers has become a special effort for CREATE and the campus, industry and teacher professional development partners it links in the CREATE STEM Success Initiative. A newly secured, half-million dollar, three-year grant from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to CREATE and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography will begin in the fall of 2015 and will increase the number of secondary science teachers engaged with researchers in institutes and lesson study, reaching 70-plus teachers across the San Diego region. More than 14 UC San Diego researchers who have received ONR funding now and in the past have already committed to participating.
Meanwhile, over the next two months, thousands of lucky students taught by these 26 inquisitive and committed middle and high school science teachers all across San Diego Unified and Sweetwater schools will get a hands-on, in-depth lesson built by their teachers, leveraging the work of cutting-edge scientists in San Diego.
“Teachers are excited and interested in each other’s work, so we’ve planned a showcase where they can once again connect and share lessons they co-created at the institute,” Sanchez said. The Next Generation Science Teacher Leaders Institute showcase is Oct. 20 at the RH Fleet Science Center.
To learn more about the NGSS-aligned science professional development offered by CREATE and the San Diego Science Project, contact Susan Yonezawa, CREATE associate director and network coordinator for the CREATE STEM Success Initiative, or Kathryn Schulz, director, San Diego Science Project.