Professors Help High School Teachers Make Science Meaningful

Using easy-to-understand examples like eating too much chili for lunch and posing illustrative questions like "What happens if you step into a bathtub full of water?" are just a few ways that high school teachers are learning to present difficult concepts to their students through a new science initiative by the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Science and the School of Education.

"It's not about using fancy words and talking like some scientist in a white coat at NASA," said Dr. Alexandra Santau, assistant professor in the Department of Instruction and Leadership in Education and Principal Investigator on the project. "It's about presenting science in an approachable way that makes sense and that students can relate to. So, if you eat too much chili for lunch and you pass gas, and someone in the back of the room smells it, that's diffusion and that's science!"

Twenty-two high school physics, biology, chemistry and environmental science teachers from nine schools in western Pennsylvania laughed at Dr. Santau's example, and agreed that similar teaching techniques resonate with their students.

Lori Hall, a ninth grade biology teacher in the Western Beaver School District, shared her go-to diffusion example of filling a room with M&Ms. "I ask them, 'If you had a room filled to the top with M&Ms, and you opened the door, would some of the M&Ms fall out?'," she said.

According to Santau, that is precisely the type of questioning that helps students build connections and make sense of difficult concepts. "It's hands-on, minds-on science," she said.

On Oct. 10 and 11, the first group of high school teachers visited Duquesne. Half of the group received lab aid kits to help design experiments demonstrating diffusion and osmosis. Others received kits to build mini remote-controlled, hydrogen-fuel cell cars for experiments demonstrating concepts like solar electricity and how hydrogen is separated from water to create energy. Each teacher also received a Livescribe pen that will help them share documents electronically.

"They want practical examples rather than theories," Madura said of high school science teachers. "They want specific lessons, and they want clear ways to integrate technology."

Santau added, "It is very important to us that the teachers co-crafted our time together. Their ideas and experiences were critical in shaping the professional development, instead of us telling them what works."

The goal of the science teaching initiative is to increase the use of inquiry-based methodology over lecture-based approaches to help students pose questions, develop hypotheses and reach conclusions.

"We're trying to give them practical applications to take back to their classrooms," Santau added.

Teachers also are learning how to make instruction more student-centered, how to guide students in planning experiments, build models, set up questions, and collect and interpret data. Most importantly, they will help students see the relevance of science to real world applications.

"It will make the students better learners, enhance their critical thinking and analysis skills, and help them become more proficient problem solvers," Seybert said.

The group of teachers will return for two days in the spring semester, and after that, will help mentor other high school teachers in the region. Organizers hope the program will be funded for an additional three years.

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