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Teaching teachers about science

published: 08/17/2000
posted to site: 03/23/2001

Teaching teachers about science

by Kelly Rausch

From The Imperial Valley Press, August 17, 2000

The students filling the classrooms at Sunflower Elementary School are looking a little older this week.

Instead of children listening to lectures, participating in discussions, and performing scientific experiments, 150 teachers from all across Imperial County are spending this week in science-content training courses designed to make them more effective teachers by increasing their scientific knowledge.

On Tuesday, teachers in Leila Gonzalez's microorganism behavior class watched brine shrimp swim in murky water. Gonzalez, a biologist at California Institute of Technology, has been teaching teachers for 10 summers.

"It's a fabulous program," Gonzalez said about the California Science Project's grants that allow such programs to happen across the state.

The Imperial Valley is just one of the 13 sites in California in which the program operates. This is Imperial Valley's first year offering the content courses.

The program, which serves every school district in the county, operates out of the science and math resource center next to Sunflower Elementary in El Centro. The week of training is just one part of a larger program designed to effect systemic change in the way teachers teach elementary science.

"What you see is a very effective partnership between the state, a geographic area, the 14 school districts and the university that's in the region all working together toward a common goal which is to improve teacher effectiveness in teaching elementary science," El Centro School District Superintendent Michael Klentschy said.

The Valle Imperial Project in Science, funded by the National Science Foundation, developed the inquiry-based curriculum that 75 to 80 percent of all county teachers use to teach science in kindergarten through sixth grade.

This inquiry-based curriculum emphasizes questioning exploration and communication. The extra depth that teachers go into when teaching science means their own knowledge must deepen as well.

The content courses are graduate-level courses taught by university staff. They function both as a supplement to the inquiry-based method teachers use and as credit toward the attainment of master's degrees for some.

Eighteen teachers will receive their master's degrees or, if they already have their master's, a certificate of completion through San Diego State University-Imperial Valley campus. The Science teacher Academy and Master's Program, or STAMP as it is called, expects more teachers to start the two-year program next year.

Participants who are in the training courses and not in the master's program receive a stipend.

Teachers have already learned the curriculum in past training session, but many felt they needed additional training not in how to teach the material but in the material itself.

"this is a really important turning point for us because the teachers know the curriculum, they know what to teach, but the confidence that they need to do a better job of teaching is what we're offering them now," said Elizabeth Molina-De La Torre, one of the coordinators for Valle Imperial Project in Science.

The inquiry-based VIPS system which started in El Centro in 1995 and has since spread throughout the county, yields results not only in science, but all across the board.

"It's higher-order thinking," said Leandra Denton, a fourth-grade teacher at De Anza Elementary in El Centro and symposium participant.

"Inquiry-based teaching is effective because it's hands-on, not right from a book. It allows students to control what they're learning," Denton added.

Additionally, the journals that students keep documenting their work promote better writing skills, said Genaro Sanchez, another fourth-grade teacher at De Anza.

What's more, as students are exposed to this inquiry-based program, their performance goes up on standardized tests, Klentschy said. He's found 90 percent of students that have been taught science in the inquiry-based method for three or four years are passing the writing proficiencey test given in sixth grade.

"That's a high number," Klentschy said.

The entire program has become a national and international model. Visitors from tennessee and Mexico are coming Sept 11 and 12 to observe the program.

"What's going on in this county is more advanced than what's happening in most of the country," Klentschy said.