Science partnerships

Have you had any experience with partnerships between K-12 teachers and higher education faculty? We’re thinking of writing a grant proposal for this type of project and we’re open to suggestions.
— David, Springfield, Massachusetts

I’ve been involved with several K-16 professional development projects with various “partnership” arrangements. In one case, it was very traditional: the teachers attended workshops or courses conducted by the university. The university staff structured the content and the course schedule specifically to meet the needs of the teachers. The courses were on-site and on-line. The advantage was teachers updated their content knowledge while becoming more familiar with technology and lab equipment. In such a project, it is important to describe and measure what the teachers are learning and determine how this new knowledge will affect their classroom instruction.

In another project, university professors worked with teachers over the summer on special topics aligned with the state science standards, and then the professors visited the schools to interact with the K-6 students. Spending one day each month in an elementary school was a new experience for the university faculty. They learned what challenges the teachers face, including the variety of students (and size of the classes), the obligation to address state science standards, the type of equipment available in the schools, and the emphasis on testing in reading and mathematics. But they enjoyed the students’ energy and enthusiasm and were impressed by their questions and interest. The students in the rural communities served by the project had the opportunity to meet real scientists. (The physics professor was very flattered when some 4th graders asked him to autograph their science textbooks.) The disadvantage of this type of project is that a “special event” atmosphere can occur. For lasting impact, this should be an ongoing collaboration between the teacher and the professor, not just a few gee-whiz demonstrations while the teacher watches from the sidelines. In this project, however, it was interesting to see the elementary teachers and the professors exchange roles as the year progressed.

At the 2009 NSTA conference, I attended a session in which two secondary science teachers described a mentoring project. They spent a summer working as research assistants at a nearby university. They had to learn the content, the lab procedures, and the research model being used. The teachers actually assisted with collecting and analyzing data. In the fall, they returned to their classrooms with new content knowledge, a new sense of accomplishment, and insights into scientific research. They have stayed in communication with their mentors, and because of their relationship with the university, they can borrow specialized equipment for their students to use. This required a long commitment over the summer on the part of both the teachers and the professors, and the professors had to provide background information and training for the teacher “newbies.”

In both of the projects described, the K-12 teachers and the university faculty were compensated for the time they spent beyond their normal teaching duties. Although the compensation was certainly appreciated, the real value was in the new opportunities for collaborative teaching and learning.

There are partnerships providing teachers access to higher education facilities: nature centers, museums, laboratory tours, library resources, special lectures or presentations, and field trip opportunities for students. Some higher education institutions have traveling science specialists who visit schools for demonstrations or assemblies.

Regardless of what your partnership project looks like, it will be important to ask “What happens at the end of the project? What knowledge, skills, and self-confidence will the teachers have to continue to improve student learning?”

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