The Power of Scientists and Teachers Combined

In my job, I’ve recently started working directly with school teachers to bring them new science curricula or activities for their classrooms. I generally like this approach, the “teach the teachers” mentality, which allows you to expand your reach, even if secondhand, over a wider audience. After all, one-off outreach events with kids are fun, but they don’t have the lasting impact of day-to-day interaction with a teacher.

I realized, in doing this, that teachers continue to be students, too. In fact, they need to get “professional development” credits. That is, they are continuing to learn how to be teachers, especially in light of the ever-changing educational landscape. I’m not sure how many of these PD credits are required and when, and I’m sure that in the US it changes from state to state.

Many of the science teachers that I know love to learn themselves. They aren’t afraid to dive into a new topic and even say, “I don’t know; let’s figure it out.” I think that’s the kind of mentality that works best for modeling scientific learning for students. So, I really enjoy working with teachers and giving them a bit of extra science background that they may not have gotten in traditional schooling.

Skepchick writer and Mad Art Lab director Amy sent along this lovely video of teachers being hosted at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for a workshop called “Educators in Paradise.” (Though I can’t get the video to work now, there is a small article attached.) First, I squeed a bit as one of the teachers was wearing a Darwin tree Surly in her interview. But I was pleased to see a lot of the same themes that I had been thinking of coming from the video. Yes, this affords a scientist a way to reach a much larger audience indirectly. Also, the teachers get something unique from the experience, too.

Though only a day-long workshop, the teachers were delighted to interact with scientists, see what they do, and get a glimpse of the “real” scientific method, the sometimes messy process that doesn’t quite conform to the textbook standard. That, I think, is the most valuable part of such teacher-scientist interactions. Not all science teachers have had the opportunity to work in a lab or on a research project, but a scientist has. Not all scientists know how to relate to students or the general public, but these teachers can. In that way, teachers become the ambassadors for scientists and science itself.

Teachers doing a NASA volcano activity called "Lava Layering."

Making Volcanoes, by N. Gugliucci

I find from post-workshop reviews that teachers love to get content directly from scientists. In a way, that surprises me. Sure, I LOVE talking about astronomy all day long, and if you ask about my research specifically, I could go into detail until you scream at me to STOP. But students in school rarely need to learn the minutiae of research but need the broader scope of scientific knowledge. In a way, I’m not sure I’m the best resource for that. However, there’s something about it coming from “the scientist” that people like, and maybe it’s my own impostor syndrome that makes me feel uneasy. Maybe there really are some nuances that I’ve picked up as a scientist, or at least as someone who has take graduate classes in the field, that I can relate to teachers that will help them in their teaching. Again, the teachers I’ve worked with LOVE to learn, so I’m glad for that.

If you’re a science teacher looking for professional development opportunities, look for one where a scientist is involved. Sometimes they’ll just come and give a lecture, and that’s cool, especially if you get ample time for questions. Other times they’ll dig in hands first along with you during the workshop, like I do when I can. Enjoy it! And remember, be gentle with us… we sometimes don’t know the very basics about education, and can get wrapped up in our own excitement. I hope I speak for my peers when I say, we love to learn, too!

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Nicole is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at a small liberal arts college. Her home on the internet can be found at One Astronomer's Noise.

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