1998-99 CUOS K-12 Education Outreach Program Progress Report
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V. Research Experiences for Teachers Program

In July 1999, we held our first Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program, with nine participants—four teachers, four undergraduate teachers in training who coordinate children's science clubs for us, and another undergraduate club coordinator who does not intend to teach. The first eight were funded by a National Science Foundation RET grant and the last by CUOS. A large group of professors, researchers, graduate students, and visiting undergraduate students from the center's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program collaborated to plan and implement a two-week series of lectures, demonstrations, and hands-on tutorials for participants on optics and the major themes of the center's research. But this was only half of the program; the afternoons were spent with CUOS K-12 Education Outreach Director Jeannine LaSovage and Program Associate Martha Toth exploring pedagogical research (on multiple intelligences theory, learning styles, cooperative and project-based learning, recent brain research, etc.) and how it could be applied to teaching young people about light and optics—or about anything else.

The two parts of the program complemented one another extraordinarily well. Since none of the participants was an expert on optics, the morning sessions served as laboratories for us to observe how we ourselves learn. The variety of teaching styles and methods allowed us to experience and reflect upon different ways to approach, grasp, and integrate new material.

A. Things We Learned

The nature of science—and the license it gives to admit your ignorance

An important part of the CUOS mission is to attract more young people to scientific research as a career; it seemed important, therefore, to ask our "providers"—all the scientists helping us—what had drawn them to careers in research. Nearly all related anecdotes about a relative or, occasionally, a special teacher who had turned them on to the excitement and wonder of science through simple experiments that helped them to understand scientific principles and that left them with more questions than when they started. For them, particularly the older respondents already established in and committed to their careers, the whole point of science is not to learn what we already know but to find explanations for what we cannot yet understand. They are puzzle-solvers, people who have learned to accommodate partial and temporary truths. They can live with not knowing the one, right answer because they know that the scientific method and view of the world is all about constructing, testing, and endlessly refining theories.

They have been mystified, bemused—even stunned—by popular debate about whether the theory of evolution should be taught in public schools, given that it is "just a theory." Similarly, they quickly realized that RET participants came in looking for an established body of knowledge:

The RET participants seemed to want scientific truths, facts, and laws, when the reality is that science is all about mysteries. Just when we know something, something else pops up that we don't know.

People seem to have the wrong idea about science and scientists. We toy and tinker, explore and experiment. When we come to know something, that something always opens many doors to other things we don't know.... We should all be in awe of what we don't know, won't know, couldn't begin to know.

I wanted to tell them and show them some truths. But the reality is we are about coming up with truths all the time. I really had a jolt of comprehension when it hit me: I work every day to comprehend more about what I don't know. And when I do know something, it just leads me to more I don't know.

The scientists all emphasized to participants that science is more than a collection of facts that they have not yet learned. It is a search for understanding, in which even the experts don't and never will know everything. Much of the educators' intimidation and fear of being perceived as ignorant was lost in the realization that, in this field of all others, it is okay not to know.

Scientists are not made by good, traditional teaching—but in spite of it

It was a revelation to teachers that most scientists became what they are in spite of, not because of, their formal training. Across the board, the CUOS scientists, graduate students, and REU's shared that what intrigued them and got them into science was hands-on and fun learning, in informal situations (not classes), with adults who loved and cared about them. In these experiences, they were nurtured, they didn't worry about not knowing, and what they tinkered with or built had no pre-designed answer or outcome.

Their formal education was not a satisfactory experience for most, even though these people are almost all very capable traditional learners, able to memorize well, to digest lectures, and to teach themselves from textbooks. Four shared that they had nearly left their field of study because they so disliked the teaching methods, learning experiences, and pressures for grades and test scores.

Twelve CUOS people shared that the further along they went in the educational system, the more pressure there was to give the professor what he or she wanted, to focus on short-term memorization rather than building understanding, and to compete with peers. Eight graduate and REU students noted that, typically, one person rose to take charge of a lab team or study group; they had never been exposed to the developed lore about roles and skills that make partnerships and small groups work effectively for all.

Three providers said that they were shifting major paradigms of thought about teaching and learning; one professor shared, "We tend to roll into the groove of 'teach them what I know; expect them to tell me what I know.' And when I step back, that certainly didn't engage me in learning and it isn't what I want for my students. In the labs, we get more of a chance to engage in true learning and exploration. But how many students get that opportunity? How many undergraduates, or teens for that matter, are we losing because they think science is about lectures, quick labs with predetermined answers, and producing what the instructor wants them to produce. This experience has made me really pause to think about our educational system—and what we do here for undergraduates and graduate students. One of my REU students shared that the time spent here in our lab and working with the RET program made a world of difference to her. We need to think more about these cross-age, cross educational-level kinds of learning experiences." Another professor shared, "The level of respect we all purposefully gave to one another and to the RET people really struck me. So often, we get into a class mentality here [at the university]. I watched before me how we each brought something to this party, how we each honestly grew from interacting with one another, and how diverse we are in degrees, interests, jobs!"

The K-12 teachers, of course, took away the message that, rather than doing what they have always done better, they need to be doing things very differently. We cannot let the joy of discovery get lost in the pursuit of achievement test scores.

There is art and science to teaching and learning, too

Reflecting upon what they had enjoyed and detested in their own educational experiences guided providers in planning experiences for us—and made them think about how their current or future teaching methods might be improved. We believe they were surprised to learn how widely their own dissatisfaction with the system had been shared.

K-12 teachers also tend to come from the portion of the population that does very well in a traditional school, yet most of us were unhappy with our school experiences, too. Just as scientists were inspired by their early experimentation, we were often motivated to replicate the great learning experiences we had had—and to improve upon the terrible ones. The differences among even our small group were startling and brought home to us in a visceral way that an inability to learn something in one way does not equate to a complete inability to learn it. We all know the "gospel" that "all children can learn," but now we truly believe it because we've seen among ourselves that a different approach can work where others have failed. When asked to identify a learning experience during these two weeks that had been particularly productive, almost every participant identified a different one. Every presenter was someone's favorite—so why do we act as if a single kind of presentation will reach all of our students?

The labs were key—I need to see the lectures put into action and to participate in my own learning to really learn.

I already knew most of the information presented from my science and math classes. However, it is important to note that the hands-on activities helped me connect the dots of information better than lectures ever have. And I gained a much greater depth of understanding about things I have thought I already knew. I learned a lot from listening to others think about and ask questions, too. There is a big difference between learning to get the facts and information and learning for understanding.

So many times, I think teachers aren't in love with what they are teaching, and they aren't really making an investment in the individual students. I had the feeling that each CUOS person cared and wanted each of us to go away understanding more than when we came into their labs. They were very open when they didn't know an answer, and they each stressed the importance of learning more and more—and that there is never an end to what we will learn.

So often in lectures, I feel panic—to keep up, to understand the terms, to think about what will be on a test. [One presenter] took away all of that. He is so patient and persistent in the delivery of his knowledge. I truly felt like he was totally invested in me and my learning.

None of us ever felt dumb or like we were asking a bad question. We need to make this kind of openness happen when we are with our kids this year.

I was ready to feel totally intimidated by them, what they do, what they know, where they work. All of these barriers were torn down within the first few days. Working with them totally took away the notion that only "brainy and nerdy" people do science and lab work.

CUOS providers had been worried about teaching us, because they knew that in the afternoons we were dissecting how we had been taught in the mornings and how well we had learned. They were anxious to be good presenters, to have "classroom participation" among us, and so forth—just as we were anxious about revealing our ignorance to them. All shared that after our first encounter, they felt safe and at ease with us. Eight confessed that they learned a lot about their own teaching styles and strategies from preparing for and working with us. Several graduate students realized, in preparing to teach us basic concepts, that they had more memorized than understood them, themselves. They proved the adage that the best way to really learn something is to teach it to someone else. A greater appreciation for us as educators and as researchers in our own field evolved. Two professors, four research scientists, and three REU's believe that they will be better teachers themselves as a result of interacting with us.

Learning community is not just something we help others to create elsewhere

The CUOS K-12 Outreach Program has spent years helping to develop learning communities in Ypsilanti, Pontiac, and Ann Arbor, but we have neglected our own. The RET program was the catalyst and vehicle for deepening our own learning community here at CUOS and for expanding it beyond the center. Four scientists were rather surprised at how much they and their graduate and REU students enjoyed planning and preparing for these experiences. Relationships deepened among them, as well as between them and the RET participants. It is entirely possible to work at the center for years without really knowing more than a few colleagues or being truly aware and appreciative of what each does.

I have worked with CUOS for 5 years, and I finally feel like I know what CUOS is about and I really know the professors, scientists, and students. I feel confident about calling and working with them now. We are more alike than I would have thought.

The theme that recurred most often in feedback was how refreshing and liberating mutual respect is; at times, we all slip back into the competitive habits in which we have been so well schooled.

Their sincere concern for our learning and the respect they had for us made us feel comfortable to learn and to ask questions.

[The presenters] were so excellent. They love to teach and were so open to interact with us, to share, to make our understanding the most important thing. I want to become more like that when I work with children and teachers—to put them as number one and to respect them.

I really learned to trust new people, which is not usual for me, and to risk sharing my ideas and feelings about learning and teaching.

The K-12 participants were invigorated and renewed their excitement for science learning from being with each other. They shared how important it was to bounce ideas off of each other, to share their strengths and weaknesses, to work together, to share resources. Too often, they feel all alone in their teaching, planning, and working with children.

Each of the program participants added significantly to the dynamics of this project. As the new person, I really felt that every person was very accepting and open to me. The level or intimacy, truth, and sharing among those that already knew and worked together was at first hard for me. It isn't what I am used to.

I have a real life experience now for "learning community" and the "village" that it takes to raise and nurture a child. I was anxious about this program, I felt kind of like an outsider and I wondered if I would "fit." I now feel confident about my role this year, I have friends and colleagues to turn to for advice and support, and I know we will help each other and share ideas and resources.

Respect for different learning styles, multiple intelligences, hands-on learning

Given that a major aim of our RET program was to improve science teaching and learning through an exploration of current research in pedagogical methods, we spent about half our time studying and reflecting upon learning styles, multiple intelligences, project-based learning, and cooperative learning. [This is hardly the place to go into these theories and research in detail, but after we post this evaluation on our Web site, we expect to add a list of appropriate Web links for those who are interested.] While most of us were familiar with the terms, a thorough examination of the theory behind these methods made us realize that we often go through the motions without truly implementing these practices. When you have time to digest and internalize the reasons why you should teach—or, more accurately, allow learning—in certain ways, you're much more likely to get it right.

In this situation, we were not applying some theory to someone else's learning; rather, we were examining our own. Eight of nine participants developed a greater appreciation for how they learn and could see more clearly when they were set up to fail or to be frustrated in formal classes, given the lack of match between the teacher, his/her methods, the experiences for learning, and the modes of evaluation, as compared to their own strengths.

Regarding science and math, all nine shared that, sadly, those who teach in these fields are reaching those who learn their way—and so it becomes accepted that only "those kinds of students" are can do well in science, math, and engineering. All participants shared some pretty major changes in their own beliefs and attitudes about themselves and science.

I was conditioned and schooled to think that I wasn't good at science and math. My parents and family also had bought into thinking that our family just wasn't good at those subjects. Now, I can say that I love science, and I love teaching it, and I feel confident about helping children and teachers enjoy and experience science. We have to keep battling for a change in this perception of what is science, who teaches it, and who learns it.

All felt they had some misconceptions about learning styles and had come to believe that teachers and professors seem to think that "smart" students learn one or two ways—and that everyone else who doesn't learn that way isn't as smart or as capable. Eight of nine believe that we all need to do much more to help children, teens, college-aged students, parents and teachers learn more about their own learning styles so they can make better choices about classes, teachers, schools and colleges. We were all amazed at how different we are in our learning styles, and eight of nine think that we each learn more when with others who learn differently then we do. Suddenly, we really understood what the fuss about "diversity" is about: individual differences in learning can enrich the experience for all.

Most now believe that teachers need to be more facilitators than imparters of wisdom, that learners need to be actively engaged, and that learners must understand how they learn in order to be successful. Seven of nine shared that there are serious points to consider in how we evaluate learners: if we buy into learning styles and multiple intelligences, then we have to not only provide opportunities to learn in these different modes, but also allow students to demonstrate what they learn and understand in ways other than the usual papers and tests.

A majority of participants had come to the program subconsciously believing that those who learn in a hands-on way are not as smart as book learners. It was profoundly surprising to them, then, that the best learning experiences and the nature of the research jobs of our scientist presenters were and are hands-on. We tend to think of hands-on workers as auto mechanics—when they could just as well be neurosurgeons.

When we went to all the different labs, every single person was doing something hands-on: mixing, setting up, observing, analyzing, listening to others ... taking apart and putting back together. Yet they are such big-picture thinkers and integrators.

Our programs simply must encourage our children and teens to get in touch with their own learning styles, and give them opportunities to learn the ways they learn best and to demonstrate that learning in many ways.

We must realize that we all learn differently. Knowing this, we should try to cater to these different styles so our children will all be able to learn what we are teaching. And, we must help our children realize that one learning style is not better than another one.

Now that I am aware of different styles, I see evidence all the time of how my friends and family and even new acquaintances learn. Sadly, I think few of us realize that there are different learning styles and that we are all capable of learning just about anything if allowed to learn the way we process and understand best.

We each must keep recognizing our own learning styles, because we too easily push these styles on our children and even friends and family members. I am growing and growing on how and when we learn and finding myself more and more capable of investing in my children and teachers, taking them where they are, helping them realize how they learn best different things, and then helping them learn and giving them resources. I can't begin to say how excited I am about this.

Deeper understanding of cooperative and project-based learning

We have all had enough experience with contemporary American education to know that a cooperative learning strategy is part of the orthodoxy now, yet many of us had negative feelings about it. Discussion and study made us realize that what we disliked were really ineffective, superficial implementations of an essentially good theory. Across the board, everyone shared bad personal experiences with "cooperative learning"; the key points:

Eight out of nine participants want more time to study models of effective cooperative learning so that we might incorporate more in our classrooms and clubs. We realize we need more understanding ourselves, more experiences of it when it really works, to help make it happen in the field.

When we really step back and look at what we are doing, I dare say we rarely are doing it so it is effective and worthwhile for the students. Many times we say we are doing cooperative learning, but how much real cooperation is going on? How much valuing one another's ideas and ways of thinking and learning? We need to do more cooperative learning ourselves to feel it and understand how to facilitate it. I think we had many examples of great cooperative learning in these last two weeks.

Current and recent undergraduates among us shared that cooperative learning takes a sincere respect for one another and appreciation for people thinking and learning differently from oneself—not competition within the group or with other groups. Our society and our educational system are structured to encourage or enforce selfishness and competition, though.

We tend to be very selfish, self-motivated, competitive with each other, wanting things to happen fast—and we don't value and respect one another.

All agreed that we must model cooperative learning and promote it in our communities. Often, what is called cooperation, isn't.

Similarly, we all have had experiences with so-called project-based learning that undermined the very theory behind the strategy. The most common implementation errors were having projects assigned by a teacher or selected by a parent, and having a project with a predefined outcome, model, or answer. We believe that the whole point of project-based learning experiences is to emulate how people work in the real world—and no one does research to confirm a thoroughly proven answer. Nor do they spend their lives (we hope!) investigating matters of no interest to them personally. So, what would we expect children to get out of going through the motions, aping research with all the adventure and interest excised? Not that we think children must be doing completely original research: if the results are unknown to them, then it is original to them.

Most project-based learning among children tends to be scientific (although it needn't be, of course), either science fair projects or science laboratory experiences. The single most common mistake we have seen is expecting the "right answer"—and grading them on it!—instead of valuing the careful procedures, documentation of process and results, theorizing about the explanation for results, and designing or at least suggesting follow-up experiments to further refine the developing theory. This is how real scientists work. And the unexpected results are the most exciting!

This strategy could truly encourage students to assimilate what they know, find something of real meaning and relevancy to themselves to do and learn, and give them the open-ended time and encouragement to get very engaged in their own learning.

Eight of nine felt strongly that this should be a primary way of learning science and of doing integrated or theme-based learning. It offers many advantages:

There are, of course, constraints and roadblocks to implementing project-based learning:

Participants noted that teaching is very much project-based learning, as we devise, design, implement, and evaluate programs for children. Maybe it will help our morale to know, then, that there is no one, right answer in our line of work, either!

Deeper commitment to hands-on science

All of us came into the RET program with some degree of belief that hands-on is a great way to teach science. We all left it with an even stronger belief that it is the best way to learn science. We have let ourselves get too wrapped up in the kinds of knowledge that are evaluated in achievement tests, without assigning enough value to harder-to-measure knowledge and to skills for future learning, such as critical thinking, careful observation, creativity, recognizing and learning from mistakes, and plain old joy in learning. It is a trap to think and act as if children only learn what we teach and if we present it to them. Just as they all learned their native language without lesson plans, there is a great deal they can learn every day in every field when the conditions are right. Hands-on, open-ended experiences are a good example of the right conditions.

We must commit to being open to the ideas of the kids, must believe in the process and not be selfish about what we want them to learn and how we want them to learn ... our way.

B. What Comes Next

The summer weeks at CUOS were just Phase I of our RET program. We knew that we would not be able to cover everything we wished to in two weeks. Participants went home with thick notebooks of materials related to what we had studied and discussed, both science- and pedagogy-related. Several have visited or been in touch since then to discuss ideas and get help with particular aspects of their planning. All are developing instructional plans, modules, and/or kits designed to implement some of what we learned about the best practices for teaching and learning. Most have an optics- or laser-related content.

Jeannine and Martha will continue to support participants however possible and requested, and will be visiting people at their sites to see them implement some lessons and projects. We will get together before the end of the year with a broader coalition meeting to share what we are all doing. Once-a-month team meetings will include a continuation of study and discussion of pedagogy, methods, and strategies as desired by the group. Five individuals have shared specific methods or strategies they want to learn more about and use with their children this semester.

We believe that having this RET program for our participating teachers and undergraduate science club coordinators has been an extraordinary opportunity. It gave us a chance to know one another, to learn and experience some common things, and to develop our own learning community so we can utilize one another during the year. We hope to continue to offer this RET program with our folks in the future. We will strive to continue learning about and practicing best practices and methods for teaching and learning science. We will continue to forge relationships and to pool efforts, making us all more effective at what we do for and with children.

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I. Science Clubs III. Career Clubs
  A. Program Description and Goals   A. Owen School
  B. Peace Neighborhood Center   B. Slauson Middle School
  C. North Maple Estates   C. Pioneer High School
  D. George School    
  E. Community Church of God IV. Technology
  F. Owen School   A. Owen School
  G. Lessons Learned from Science Clubs   B. Coalition Web Site
II. Mentoring Programs V. Research Experiences for Teachers
  A. Program Description and Goals   A. Things We Learned
  B. Chapelle School   B. What Comes Next
  C. Pioneer High School    
  D. The Neutral Zone VI. Conclusions and Recommendations
  E. HOPE Program    
  F. Serendipity Reading Clubs VII. Appendix A. Organizational Chart
  G. Camp Discovery   Appendix B. Partners List

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