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Case Study: Seattle School District: K-5 Inquiry-Based Science Program: The Use of Scientists/Engineers in the Professional Development of Science Teachers

author: Elaine Woo
published: 2001
posted to site: 12/14/2001

Case Study: Seattle School District
K-5 Inquiry-Based Science Program
A Local Systemic Change Project (LSC) funded by NSF

by Elaine Woo

The Use of Scientists/Engineers in the Professional Development of Science Teachers

Overview: Providing Science Content Courses

When Seattle's Local Systemic Change (LSC) Project began in 1996, there was no plan for science content classes. During the first year, the teachers began to ask for them. Dr. Ben Sayler of the University of Washington (UW) was recruited to help with this component of the project. He worked with the project's Science Resource Teachers (SRTs), who are released full time to design and implement the professional development for classroom teachers participating in the LSC. The SRTs focus on the pedagogy of inquiry-based science, the lessons in each unit, classroom and materials management, assessment strategies, and integration ideas. After the first year of the LSC, the SRTs began to collaborate with scientists. Over time, this helped the scientists be better prepared to teach science content classes to the elementary classroom teachers. In turn, the Science Resource Teachers increased their science content knowledge.

Initially, Dr. Sayler worked with one SRT and one unit at a time. He visited classrooms to see the interactions of the children and classroom teachers. He also visited the professional development in the LSC. He would then plan with the SRT ahead of time before implementing some inquiry activities that would lead teachers to understand the "adult content" behind the student content. The idea was that teachers needed to know the content at a deeper level in order to guide the students through questioning.

As the Seattle Project grew in size, it needed more scientists and engineers to participate in providing content to teachers. An important partner in this effort was the Physics Education Group (PEG), a research group in the Department of Physics, University of Washington, which is a national leader in the preparation of precollege teachers to teach science as a process of inquiry. Research on learning and teaching has guided the development of a national curriculum for the effective preparation of teachers (Physics by Inquiry). With the increased number of scientists/engineers helping with professional development, Seattle moved to a model in which SRTs and Lead Teachers (teachers who still teach full time but assist the SRTs with the professional development) worked with the scientists to develop science content courses. Based on their recent direct experience, the Lead Teachers gave input on how things actually work in the classroom. The SRTs, having past experience in the classroom but also more experience in understanding how the unit works and where the weaknesses and strengths of the unit are, collaborated with scientists/engineers to provide input in how the "adult content" could be best taught. As a result, scientists in collaboration with the PEG, SRTs and Lead Teachers developed twenty-hour content courses related to the science units. A key "lesson learned" in the construction of these content courses was that the content needs to be taught to the teachers in the same way they would teach their students. A benefit was that this experience changed the way the scientists taught their own university courses. After working with the elementary teachers, their own instruction changed to become more inquiry-based and more compatible with diverse learners' needs.

Scientist Selection

Dr. Sayler and members of the Physics Education Group collaborated to recruit scientists (e.g., faculty, advanced doctoral students, and graduate students) from many science departments across the UW campus who had an interest in serving as content workshop instructors for teachers. After a successful interview with Dr. Sayler and/or PEG representatives, interested scientists were invited to participate in a professional development program before they could work with teachers.

Scientist Preparation Course

There is ample research evidence that, without appropriate preparation, the involvement of scientists with teachers is likely not to lead to significant changes in the content understanding of the teachers or to systemic changes in the way science is taught in the precollege classroom. Regardless of their department affiliation and the topic they might be addressing with elementary classroom teachers, all the scientists participated in a two-part professional development program. They began their own professional development by taking a course called Physics 575. PEG offered this 15-hour course with support from the Seattle's SRTs. The syllabus was developed specifically to provide the scientists with the background they needed to work successfully with K-5 teachers. Topics of study included:

  • Subject matter in pre-college curriculum topics
  • Common conceptual and reasoning difficulties with important basic concepts
  • Effective instructional strategies
  • Typical concerns, knowledge, and skill base of teachers
As part of this preparation, the scientists worked through excerpts from Physics by Inquiry, a laboratory-based curriculum developed by the PEG for the preparation of pre-college teachers to teach physics and physical science as a process of inquiry. The scientists also had an opportunity to study how research on learning and teaching of science and mathematics can guide the development and assessment of instructional materials. In one of the sessions, the SRTs presented the history of the Seattle Project and important issues that they face in K-5 science education in Seattle. The SRTs also introduced, through creative role-play, components of interactions that promote productive collaboration between scientists and elementary school teachers. For this, they used strategies from Garmston's Cognitive Coaching. At the conclusion of the course, some of the participants were invited to serve as content instructors at summer institutes that would be provided to elementary teachers.

For the second part of their professional development, each new instructor then received additional preparation specific to the unit they would be supporting during the summer institute. In this second phase, each scientist joined a team composed of at least one SRT and one veteran scientist from the project. Each team reviewed the teacher's manual for their unit, reviewed whatever professional development curriculum had been used in past years, considered any content-related questions that had emerged from K-5 teachers in the past, and set to work designing the summer sessions.

Dr. Ben Sayler left for a position in another state after completing his post-doctoral work at the University of Washington in the fall of 1999. At about that time, with support from President McCormick and others, the K-12 Institute for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education was developed on the University of Washington campus. Dr. Dana Riley-Black became the contact person for organizing scientists for the science content courses. Through the K-12 Institute, Dr. Riley-Black has given 25% or her time to help organize these elementary content courses. New courses needed to be developed as some new curriculum was adopted to better meet the new state EALRs (Essential Academic Learning Requirements) and some existing courses needed to be adapted. At the same time, there had been turnover in the scientist population, and new scientists needed to be recruited. Under Dr. Riley-Black's leadership, the K-12 Institute has accommodated these changes.

The development of new courses or adaptation of existing courses has continued in more of a one-on-one situation as compared to the initial development. The courses are still co-developed and co-taught with at least two scientists and Lead and Science Resource Teachers, but the initial experiences for the new scientists are facilitated one-on-one with PEG (if physics related) and the K-12 Institute if within another content area.

For summer of 2000, Dr. Riley-Black coordinated the involvement of thirty-five scientists in the teaching of twenty-two courses. For summer of 2001, she has had to coordinate scientists for the development of two new content courses and the adaptation of a few others. The K-12 Institute has made a substantial contribution to the evolution of these courses.

Scientist Vignette: Continuity Brings Strength

Jerome Patoux, a graduate student, helped teach one of the primary units in his first summer of participation. The SRTs worked with him to help him understand the components of this first grade science unit and and how they teach classes to their peers. He helped them learn more science content behind the student content. By the second summer, he had a strong understanding of the pedagogy of inquiry-based science, the Learning Cycle, and the inquiry continuum. He even wrote a booklet of adult inquiry lessons for the first grade unit on weather. He calls the booklet WEATHER 2000 - An introduction to the physics of weather for elementary school teachers. In his content classes, teachers followed the instructions for an inquiry investigation from his booklet. After they completed the investigation, he led a debriefing and reflective discussion. Then, with his excellent drawing skills, he would sketch the explanation on the chalkboard along with, and followed by, more reflective discussion. He had become masterful in teaching teachers the adult science content behind the unit, and teachers came away with deeper understandings of the content they were to teach to their students.

Incentives for the Scientists' Participation
The scientists give up a minimum of one week of time each summer as well as a number of hours in late spring and early summer for developing the courses initially, and then, planning with the Science Resource and Lead Teachers. This is a huge commitment of the scientists' time. We have been able to offer the scientists a stipend each summer for their work. The Boeing Company has generously provided these stipends as well as some funds for special supplies needed for these adult science concept courses. In addition, there is an intrinsic incentive for scientists' participation in the courses. These scientists find ways to take their experience back to their own workplace. For example, Dr. Patoux has now become involved in some national K-12 efforts in developing science content courses; Dr. Terry Swanson has reworked the ways in which he presents materials to his undergraduate students; and Eddie Sonne (graduate student) has told faculty members about techniques she learned teaching these courses. Now the faculty members in her department have incorporated them into their teaching.

These one-week courses have lead to the desire to develop more sustained courses at the university for practicing teachers. In essence, it has been a nice pilot test for what might ultimately exist. It is imperative to find a way for sustaining these courses. Teachers will need on-going support in increasing their science content knowledge. These courses will require some external support for stipends, materials, and for the key person who organizes the courses, ensures that the courses evolve, and that new courses are developed when needed. And, of course, it will be necessary to continue to recruit new scientists as there will always be turnover. An infrastructure needs to be organized for future development and maintenance of these science content courses in order to keep them in place. Partnerships need to be nurtured and sustained to do all of this work.

Final Thoughts - Lessons Learned

There are a number of scientists who have become quite successful with Seattle's teachers. Seattle's success is based on initial training for the scientists, including direct interactions with the SRTs and Lead Teachers. SRTs and Lead Teachers help scientists understand how the science unit works, the best strategies for getting the adult content across to teachers, and what is important to include in a 20-hour content workshop. In other words, these master teachers help the scientists understand how elementary students and teachers work best. Scientists bring the science content expertise. Most often the scientists work in pairs, which seems to be very successful and has motivated the scientists to participate for a second or third year. This continued collaboration helps all the instructors. The scientists, the Science Resource Teachers, and the Lead Teachers hone their skills and over time become stronger in the areas of science content, pedagogy of inquiry-based science, embedded and performance assessment, and integration connections.

Other scientists have played roles that affected student learning and understanding outside formal professional development. Two retired high school science teachers have made major contributions. The first has worked at the Science Materials Center with his wife since the day it opened. They each have volunteered forty hours per week for the last five years. With his science background, this former science teacher looked for better materials when they did not work well in the classroom. For example, we discovered that one type of thermometer that was supplied was not consistent when children used them in the classroom. He searched the nation for the most cost-effective and consistent thermometers which resulted in much more successful investigations by the students. He and his wife also have devised better ways to package the materials to make it easier for teachers and the materials center staff to take inventory. Finally, they continue to look in the community for donated materials. In these last five years, their work has made a substantial impact on the way teachers receive materials support.

The second retired high school science teacher realized that there were many opportunities for connecting science units with specific field trips that would enhance those units. Often some children participated in none of these field trips while other students experienced a number of them. He wanted to organize these resources so that there would be equity and so that a child would receive a field trip that enhanced one of the units s/he studied each year. For five years, the Alliance for Education, the fund raising agency for the Seattle Schools, has provided funding for these trips. This former teacher worked with the providers to ensure that they would model the inquiry process and address the big idea of the content in the unit. This, then, became an opportunity for both children and teachers to get modeling for good inquiry science. The trip also helped children become more aware of real-world connections to the science they study at school.

Almost 30,000 hours of scientist time have been contributed to Seattle's elementary LSC project. Many hours are focused specifically on professional development for the teachers, but some are focused on ensuring that the materials support is of the highest quality possible while others focus on bringing real-world connections in the community to the science units studied in the classroom. Together this time has made an enormous difference in how children, teachers, administrators, parents, and other community members value and view science education.

The partnerships with the Molecular Biotechnology Department, the Physics Education Group, and the K-12 Institute have been invaluable and imperative for the success of this work. Without their support, these science content courses would not have been developed.

Another critical point to consider is that the TIMSS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study) points out that fourth and eighth grade children in the United States tend to receive much more life and earth science than physical science. Specifically, the weakest areas in physical science are "forces and motion," "physical and chemical changes," and "matter" at fourth grade, and "physical changes," "properties and classification of matter," and "forces and motion" at eighth grade. (Schmidt, "Defining Teacher Quality Through Content: Professional Development Implications from TIMSS," 2000.) In the Northwest, we have access to the Physics Education Group (PEG) at the University of Washington. Because of the results of TIMSS, an ongoing partnership with PEG clearly is essential in reforming science education.