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P&S Journal

P&S Journal: Winter 1998, Vol.18, No.1

When School's Out for Summer: New York Teachers Take to the Lab

By Sally McLain

The 1997 participants in the P&S Summer Research Program for Science Teachers with Dr. Samuel Silverstein, program director (back center) and Jay Dubner, program coordinator (front row, fourth from left).


Every summer, a handful of research laboratories at P&S receive an added jolt of energy when the Summer Research Program for Science Teachers gets under way. That boost of electricity comes from the visiting teachers themselves who, as one researcher puts it, broaden the experience for everyone by bringing their varied backgrounds to the labs. But what they take away from the experience is perhaps as beneficial to future generations as the research advances themselves. Something that, though not exactly tangible, will touch many lives.

For each of the past eight years, 20 science teachers have participated in this intensive summer program at Columbia University. By bringing middle school and high school science teachers to University laboratories, the program gives teachers two summers of hands-on experience in a scientific research setting. We believe this program encourages teachers to, in essence, practice what they teach, says Dr. Samuel C. Silverstein, the John C. Dalton Professor and Chairman of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics, who initiated Columbia's program in 1989 and oversees its operation today. "There are no high school football coaches who have never played football, but there are plenty of science teachers who have never done science other than routine college lab exercises.

So rather than be a "coach who has never made a touchdown, Mercedes Diez, a middle school science teacher, spent the summer in the lab of Dr. Robert Winchester, professor of pediatrics and pathology, where she studied the genetics of multiple sclerosis. The lessons she learned, however, covered much more than biology--lessons in patience, both for her students and for the process of science, lessons in the importance of hands-on experience, in professional self-respect, and in the value of writing and presenting what you know. "Before this summer, I had a totally different idea about research. I figured you'd have to study and know about the latest advances, just like in teaching. But I thought you'd come to the lab, do your experiment, and go home, says Ms. Diez, who teaches sixth-grade general science at the Mott Hall School in Manhattan. Little did she realize how much of her physical and mental time the research would take. Staying up until 3 a.m. writing about her research was not uncommon.

Given that grueling routine, you might expect participants to be happy to go back to their full-time jobs. But instead of sighs of relief, participants who have finished their two-year commitment seem almost melancholy; those just completing their first half of the program are eager for next summer to come.

Becoming Scientists who Teach

The word trichinella brings to mind thoughts of undercooked pork and subsequent intestinal ailments--not a cure for cancer. But, as Roy Arezzo learned over the past two summers, scientists don't always look in the most expected places for solutions to their puzzles. Mr. Arezzo, a middle school teacher at Eugenio Maria De Hostos Intermediate School in Brooklyn, who completed two summers of research in 1997, worked in the lab of Dr. Dickson Despommier, professor of parasitology and microbiology in public health.

He set out to determine whether the trichinella worm produces a secretion called HIF-1. His experiment was part of an ongoing investigation that may one day lead to a treatment for cancerous tumors. "This project alone took a large chunk of my summer. I thought it would be easier than that; at least it looked easier on paper." After studying the life cycle of trichinella spiralis in the summer of 1996, Mr. Arezzo was ready for the big HIF-1 investigation last summer. And, as in the previous school year, he planned to take some of what he learned in the second summer back into the classroom.    
Roy Arezzo's World Wide Web site-- physio/schools/318-- is hosted by P&S.

Roy Arezzo, who spent two summers in the lab of Dr. Dickson Despommier studying the trichinella spiralis worm

Charlene Chan, who completed her first summer researching cystic fibrosis, may one day go to medical school.

A summer lab experience was a rewarding contribution to Charlene Chan's professional goals. Although she is in her second year of teaching at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, Ms. Chan considers a future in medicine. "When I went to college, I had trouble deciding between medical school and education. Although I took a lot of premed courses, I went with a major in science education." One day she may change careers, but for now Ms. Chan is motivated and inspired by her students to continue teaching.


Her first year as a teacher presented many challenges, one of which was taking over--in mid-year--a special advanced science research program at her school. "I was inspired by these kids who would stay late after school to work on their projects. I really got into their excitement and would even call them on the weekends to see how their work was going. Their excitement motivated me to apply to Columbia for this program," she says.

Ms. Chan was selected to work in the lab of Dr. Alice Prince, professor of pediatrics, studying a pathogen that affects patients with cystic fibrosis. "The most rewarding thing is not just working in the lab," says Ms. Chan, "but reflecting on how I treat students." She draws a parallel between her experience and that of students who may be new to the world of science. "When my students wouldn't grasp a concept I'd ask them 'Didn't you study?' Now I realize that mode of

thinking is wrong because I would have to ask the same questions many times when I was in the lab. I've reflected on the last year of teaching and realize that it may be easy for the teacher, but I have to be conscious of how I treat students because much of what I'm teaching is new to them.

That may be the biggest lesson the teacher participants learn. Both Dr. Silverstein and Jay Dubner, program coordinator, say they hear this response echoed every year. "They're used to being in front of the class and knowing more than their students," says Mr. Dubner, a former special education teacher and Board of Education administrator. "They now realize what it's like for students who walk into their class for the first time." Dr. Silverstein uses the word resensitize to describe the new understanding teachers gain for their students when the teachers enter the program and encounter scientific terms, concepts, and laboratory equipment--often for the first time.

The bulk of the program's benefits clearly go to the teachers themselves, such as a realistic lab experience doing authentic research, the chance to learn new computer skills, added support for their schools' science programs, and a recharged enthusiasm for scientific pursuits. Yet the mentors are known to feel rewards from their participation, too. I basically think it's important to meet people from different backgrounds, says Dr. Prince, Ms. Chan's mentor. "For instance, the science teacher may ask you a basic question that you, as a researcher, never thought of. It makes you vigorously think about what you're doing."

Getting Comfortable

As many as 75 Science Work Experience Programs for Teachers exist in the United States, but Columbia's program is unique in that it commits teachers to two consecutive summers within the same lab. Most other programs last only one summer. The first year of participation, teachers tend to be nervous and intimidated by the laboratory setting," says Mr. Dubner. By the second summer, they're comfortable. That's why this is a two-year program. Adds Dr. Silverstein:The incentives for both the mentor and participant are to see the trajectory of ongoing research. You can see what happens over a 14-month period and how it flowers. It shows how patience and perseverance are keys to science.

For Mr. Arezzo, his first summer in the lab was spent studying the life cycle of the trichinella spiralis worm. He took those lessons back to his classroom where the students studied the same thing.Lots of what I've done at Columbia I've taken back to the classroom and it really improved my program. For instance, Mr. Arezzo's school started a talented and gifted program a few years ago for students showing a high level of interest and above-average test scores. Those students, most of whom turn out to be college-bound, come to school earlier in the morning than the rest of their classmates and take enrichment courses. Mr. Arezzo runs the scientific research program for those students. Last year I didn't do as much in my class with genetic labs. We studied the life cycle of the worm, which can take a whole semester.

By the end of his second summer in the program, Mr. Arezzo planned to take some of his lab lessons to his students. With all the news about cloning and DNA, a genetics lab will be relevant to my students, he says. We're planning to visit the lab at P&S and we'll use DNA from trichenella in our experiments.

Making science relevant to their students is an important factor that many teachers recognize, but how to do that is not always simple. Ms. Diez believes the only way is through hands-on experimentation. Since starting this program, I've been rewriting my whole curriculum to put more emphasis on the cell, she says. "Once the students understand the cell, they'll understand everything about biology much better." She tells how students get turned off of science when it's lecture-based. "Hands-on experiments make it more clear and interesting, although harder for the teacher because it takes more preparation.

Mercedes Diez watches as her sixth-grade students use the scientific method to show how they determine the mass of certain organic materials, from cork to rock.  

Friends in Common

Every Monday during each summer, Mr. Dubner organizes a day-long seminar for the teachers. It not only gives them a break from the lab, but brings the entire group together to listen to a speaker and share ideas. The catered lunch provided isn't bad either.

But, as Mr. Arezzo said at the final meeting last summer, the programs Mr. Dubner planned served more than food. Each meeting served one of three purposes: science content, science communication, and science teaching. For science content meetings, a member of the Columbia faculty or a guest speaker would present a lecture followed by a discussion. One week the morning meeting included a presentation by a park ranger from the Edison National Historic Site followed by Dr. Michael Gershon, chairman of anatomy and cell biology, giving a talk about "The Intestinal Nervous System: A Second Brain." Another week, the afternoon discussion, led by Dr. John Loike, research scientist in physiology and cell biology, addressed "Ethical Issues of Cloning.

New friendships also come out of the Monday programs. Ms. Diez and Ms. Chan became close friends. "We are sharing lesson plans and we swapped action plans," says Ms. Chan. Even though the two teach at different levels, they've planned to share lessons they can adjust for their respective classes. They enjoyed the camaraderie so much, in fact, says Ms. Chan,that we wanted it to be a three- or four-year program.

When secondary school science teachers participate in the Columbia University Summer Research Program, they get much more than a hands-on lab experience. Besides reporting that they are engaged intellectually, find new avenues for personal and professional growth, acquire an increased appreciation for the process of scientific discovery, and have more enthusiasm to share with their students and fellow teachers, they describe a number of perks that continue the momentum started by the program.

Columbia invests in the teachers' computer capabilities by providing each teacher with training, a modem for his or her school's computer, and basic Internet access on America Online. The goal is to reduce the isolation teachers sometimes feel when they return to their classrooms. In addition, since 1995, Columbia's Internet server has hosted web sites for each teacher's school. The summer program's World Wide Web address:

Throughout the school year, teachers may bring their students to Columbia labs for tours and visits with faculty. Also, Jay Dubner, program coordinator, produces a newsletter several times a year to keep teachers posted on future programs and activities of participants. The program also sponsors a resource library with videos, lesson plans created by program participants, and scientific literature.

Teachers receive a stipend during their participation and an allowance to use toward classroom supplies or educational materials. Teachers can use that allowance for field trips, travel to professional meetings, membership in scientific organizations, or other services or products to enhance their science lessons.

Credit Where Credit's Due

Gone are the days of Aristotle when teachers were revered and highly respected. That may still be the case in some countries, but the United States, since the 1960s, has seen a decline in respect for most figures of authority, including teachers. "I come from South America where teachers are valued more," says Ms. Diez. "Coming to this country, I was shocked." Yet both she and Ms. Chan say the Columbia program gave back to the teachers a feeling of professional self-respect. "One teacher was joking the other day that Jay made us feel like we're somebody special," says Ms. Chan, "but it's true. In the medical profession, you get respect from the white coat, but teachers have to work harder for that. This program recognizes our specialty and that has motivated us.

It comes back to the football coach metaphor. "Teachers are more likely to be respected by students when they've been involved in the practice of science," says Dr. Silverstein. "Some of our teachers come here and do original research." Sitting on the sidelines is not an option.

Yet it's not just about the teachers, although the investment starts with them. The United States has seen declines in math and science test scores in its educational system over the past few decades. A national education goal for the year 2000 is

for U.S. schools to be the first in the world in math and science achievement. As the millennium quickly approaches, the United States is nowhere near that goal. Another statistic shows that American confidence in the educational system is at an all-time low. In 1967, 71 percent of Americans polled thought schools were doing a good job preparing children for the future. Today, that figure is only 42 percent, with 51 percent of those surveyed saying that children are getting a worse education than previous generations.

The answer, some believe, may lie in teacher enhancement and changing the system itself so it fits in with changes in technology and society. That's where Columbia's summer program comes in. Not only does it strengthen teachers themselves, but the students whose lives they touch benefit from their teachers' enriched scientific knowledge. "We have preliminary evidence that teacher participation in our program significantly improves student achievement in class participation and Regent's scores," says Dr. Silverstein. (The Regent's test is the annual standardized test of high school students in New York state.)

Because Dr. Silverstein himself is a scientist, he wants to measure and evaluate that preliminary evidence. So in 1998, Columbia University and six similar programs across the United States will apply to the National Science Foundation for a $1.5 million grant to assess the effectiveness of their approach. The group hopes to prove the assumption that such programs are indeed cost-effective and beneficial to American children. If that can be shown, more universities may establish programs like Columbia's. Columbia's program costs $25,000 per teacher for the two-year period. And, according to an article in the journal Nature, an annual investment of $150 million could provide similar training for every high school science teacher in the United States every 13 years

copyright ©, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center

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