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Science puts topic out front
Science puts topic out frontIn the know: College students from seven local campuses visit Atlanta classrooms three times a week to help strengthen pupils' weak knowledge of the subject.
By Doug Cumming
The cluster of fourth-grade girls sitting near the front of the classroom had been satisfying their natural-born curiosity about the properties of magnets for 30 minutes when they, turned their curiosity on the visiting 21-year-old Emory University senior who was helping with the science lesson.
Shana Margolis is not a schoolteacher, and never intends to be. She is a chemistry major planning to enter med school after graduating from Emory.
That seemed pretty cool to these fourth-graders at Atlanta's W. F. Slaton Elementary. "Chemistry Girl!" Bianca Cephus cried out. Caitlin Bradley announced that she wants to go to Emory, too. Joaquina Kalukango asked if Emory is in Michigan.
"No, it's in Atlanta," said Margolis, one of about 200 science majors from seven local campuses who visit Atlanta classrooms three hours a week in a nationally recognized program called Elementary Science Education Partners.
ESEP, a partnership between Emory, Atlanta Public Schools, and local higher education institutions that has won awards from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation, represents the kind of solution that national experts seek to a problem that is increasingly recognized is underlying the weak subject knowledge of many teachers and the low achievement of their students. The problem is the thick wall that separates university level arts and sciences from Public schools and colleges of education.
Put bluntly, it helps explain America has a higher education system that is the envy of tile world, but a school system that ranks mediocre, or worse. In Georgia, top administrators it the Board of Regents, Georgia State University, and the University of Georgia have all recognized this problem as a key weakness in the way most of Georgia's 80,000 certified teachers have been educated.
Future teachers take their subjects - math, history, English, science and such - from the arts and sciences departments of their college, or if they're in a university, from a college of arts and sciences that is separate from the college of education. But professors who teach these academic subjects, traditionally, have not done a good job of presentation, their subject in a way that is interesting or understandable to most students who plan to be teachers.
As a result, said Ahmed Abdelal, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Georgia State, the failure of these professors to engage education majors in the subject matter creates a double problem for the future teacher: An education student often acquires a dislike of the subject and, when called on to teach the subject later, has poor role models to draw on.
The problem is most acute for elementary teachers, who typically major in elementary education but must give children the foundation for virtually all subjects. Science, in particular, is a subject that elementary teachers often fear or do not grasp, which is why ESEP is a welcomed experiment in tying university-level scholarship directly to the public schools.
Jenifer Haven, the fourth-grade teacher who gets Margolis as an ESEP teacher twice a week, admits she was phobic about science when she was in high school, and took all easy general physics course at Virginia Tech to fulfill her science requirement while majoring in elementary education. But after two days of training in ESEP and a year of co-teaching the ESEP lessons, "I have a whole new outlook." Now, she says, she would love to take science classes at a university.
Version of real scienceESEP is a rare example of children starting to benefit from the new national education standards that top scholars and education experts have designed since the late 1980s - detailed, rigorous, grade-by-grade knowledge designed to produce high school graduates ready for high-level college work in every subject. ESEP provides not only a science undergraduate to help give teachers confidence, but also science kits and lesson plans that allow each student to do a child's version of real science with their own hands.
The children on this particular morning, for example, test their magnets on objects around the room, then write down their guesses for what will stick or not stick, then see whether they were right. In the end, Margolis and Haven have the students' lively attention as the teachers make generalizations about the attraction of magnets to iron and Matthew Grantham, a fourth-grader who seems to be the class magnet expert, is allowed to explain the technical terms "attract" and "repel."
In Georgia, university leaders have launched several other initiatives to breach the traditional wall between arts and sciences, on one side, and colleges. of education and the public schools on the other.
Four years ago, Abdelal and the dean of GSU's College of Education, Sam Deitz, started the Professional Education Faculty , a collaborative made up of representatives from every department of both colleges that meets several times a year. It has replaced the "science education" degree with a degree called Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies that gives future high school science teachers a concentration in science that is almost equal to that of science majors.
The PEF also has helped arts and sciences faculty learn teaching skills from colleagues in the College of Education by attending workshops and watching videos. "We're hearing the mantra 'Every student can learn,'" said geology professor David Vanko, chairman of the PEF. "That's challenging some of us who have always thought, 'Nah, only the people in the front row can learn.'"
At the University of Georgia, the deans of the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education created the Deans' Forum, an advisory group that has paired education faculty with arts and sciences faculty for research projects and team-teaching. Additionally, with a national grant to make Georgia the pilot state for a project to examine and possibly revamp teacher education with new national content standards, GSU, UGA and the State University of West Georgia in Carrollton are all doing similar work through a collaboration.
But barriers, crusty with tradition, make such collaboration highly unlikely, many say.
"There are no incentives whatsoever for a liberal arts professor to work in the public schools or work with an education student," said Barnett Berry, a leading policy expert with the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, a New York-based project that is devising new standards for the teaching profession. "In many research universities, classes are designed to weed out students and only identify the high-flying research types, not the teachers." Berry said the governance and funding of the entire education system, from elementary grades through universities, will have to be totally changed.
Breaking down barriersOther education reformers sound less radical but acknowledge that the barriers are thick. Stephen Portch, chancellor of the University System of Georgia, is trying to break down these barriers with P-16 Councils, forums he thought up to bring together leaders from pre- school to the fourth year of college (grade "16") throughout the state.
But the P-16 Councils are too focused on long-term systemic change to have yielded any concrete changes in the classroom, which frustrates Rob Baird, president of the National Faculty, an Atlanta-based foundation that for 30 years has brought scholars and teachers together for rigorous academic study.
"Research is showing that of all the factors that go into student achievement, teacher quality can't be ignored," said Baird, who joined the Metropolitan Atlanta P-16 Council but lost patience with the focus on systemic policy.
"I don't think school systems of this state have taken that point seriously enough."
Until the state takes this seriously, Baird said, the only way university-level standards can come to the schools is through enterprising scholars who are secure enough in their own field to do it on their own, scholars like Robert DeHaan, the creator of ESEP.
DeHaan, 67, almost stumbled on the idea of ESEP by accident. As a cell biologist at Emory since 1973, he was ready for a change when he learned about the involvement of his colleague Bruce Alberts, an eminent scientist, in the San Francisco schools. Alberts, now director of the National Academy of Sciences, had discovered that schoolteachers, often afraid of science, can become excited to learn how to do real science as an active inquiry, rather than a recitation of facts.
Inspired, DeHaan visited Morningside Elementary, his grandson's school. He found teachers and administrators who shared his enthusiasm, and the program began taking shape. In 1995, with then-Superintendent Benjamin Canada and three other Atlanta school staffers, DeHaan spent six days at the National Science Resources Center in Washington learning about ways to bring science to the child's level.
"It was the steepest learning curve I've ever been on since I was a graduate student," Dehaan said.
Through his experience with ESEP, he said, he has gained a new respect for schoolteachers and education professors. "I think that antagonistic attitude between education and the more academic community is beginning to dissolve, particularly for scientists, because we're realizing how difficult teaching science to children really is."
And teachers like Jenifer Haven, at Stanton, are realizing how exciting it can be to teach in this wholly new way. She wrapped up her first ESEP lesson of the year by asking for student feedback about science. "Fun," they said. "Fantastic." "Exciting."
"A good discovery," said one girl, referring to their magnet experiments but, perhaps in the teacher's mind, saying something also about how well the lesson worked.
"Excellent," Haven said "And that's what we were doing."