Summer Institutes for Philadelphia
By Barbara Spector
This summer marks the 12th
anniversary of Bryn Mawr College's Summer Institutes
for Philadelphia Teachers, a program designed
to help city educators recognize that the purpose
of scientific inquiry isn't to be "right" but
to become "progressively less wrong."
Paul Grobstein, Eleanor A.
Bliss Professor of Biology, started the institutes
Faculty members in other
departments including chemistry, computer
science, mathematics, physics, psychology and
the education program have also played
major roles in their evolution. A goal of the
program, Grobstein says, is to reinforce the notion
that the scientific process testing a hypothesis,
observing the deficiencies in that hypothesis
and trying it again is fun, and everyone
already understands how to do it.
"A major theme of the program
is to get teachers to be comfortable with being
wrong and to convey that comfort to students,"
Grobstein says. Learning occurs more readily when
teachers and students are able to relax and enjoy
the investigative process, he notes.
"The course enhanced what
I already knew empirically from working with students,"
says Karen Cohen, an English teacher at Lincoln
High School. "A fully engaged learner does not
just memorize isolated facts and commit them to
short-term memory where they will be quickly forgotten,
but learns through active involvement with ideas
dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity
and attempts analytically and intuitively
to get a better understanding of those ideas.
Moreover, emotion plays a vital role when tapping
into prior knowledge to make new connections or
understandings sustainable over time."
Claudette Stone, assistant
principal at the Philadelphia High School for
Girls, says the program has provided crucial professional-development
opportunities for her and for other faculty members
at her school. "We need to keep current in what's
out there," Stone says. The program, she notes,
is "a good way to network, and it also lets us
know what's happening in the universities and
what's expected of our students."
Bryn Mawr College operates
the program under a grant from the Howard Hughes
Medical Institute. Each Summer Institute is a
two-week program during which teachers from the
School District of Philadelphia come to the Marion
Edwards Park Science Center to interact with College
faculty. Faculty members serve as facilitators;
instead of lecturing, they share with participants
their perspectives on enhancing science and mathematics
"Rather than treating the
teachers as students, the faculty engage the teachers
with an integrative learning approach," Grobstein
says. "They involve them in the kinds of experiences
they might use in the classroom."
The program, originally designed
for high-school science teachers, is now also
open to non-science educators as well as to those
who teach in middle and elementary schools. Participants
receive a $500 stipend. An additional $300 is
available to those who write acceptable curriculum
proposals and report on how they adapt what they
learn in their schools. Eighteen teachers participate
in each institute.
This year the College will
host two Summer Institutes. "Brain and Behavior,"
directed by Grobstein, is taking place July 8-26.
"Bridging Cultures: Science and Inquiry Throughout
the Curriculum," to be held July 22-August 2,
will be co-directed by Kimberly Cassidy, associate
professor of psychology, Jody Cohen, lecturer
and acting director of the education program at
Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, and Paul Burgmayer,
a former industrial researcher who has a Ph.D.
in analytical chemistry.
"Brain and Behavior"
which has been held each year since the Summer
Institutes began explores ways to incorporate
advances in brain research into curricula as well
as the implications of these advances for educational
theory and practice. "Bridging Cultures," a new
program, will focus on integrating science with
Jody Cohen says the institutes
support teachers efforts through the content
of the programs and by reinforcing their investigation
into classroom practice based on their own experiences.
The content, she says, "is connected to their
daily life. We dont spend two weeks lecturing
or ignoring the fact that theyre bringing
expertise as well as questions about their practice."
For example, Cohen says, a
fifth-grade teacher would bring to bear what she
already knows about her pupils when investigating
potential science projects, including what they
find exciting and unexciting, how they perform
on tests and other observations. "Shes
constantly using her experience to raise real-life
questions about what the new material and curriculum
planning would look like," Cohen says.
Over the years, the Internet
has emerged as a key component of the institutes.
Participants increase their comfort level with
the Web by searching, developing online materials,
and investigating ways of using the Internet as
a classroom adjunct for example, by creating
a Web page on a topic related to the brain and
its impact on learning.
College faculty members help
teachers recognize that a lack of resources to
purchase the latest high-tech equipment does not
necessarily prevent development of an effective
science curriculum, Grobstein says. "What you're
really trying to do is help people learn to think,"
he explains. "You can do that with almost anything."
Deepak Kumar, associate professor
of computer science, has been involved with the
institutes for more than five years. He has helped
teachers develop entertaining classroom exercises
to teach sophisticated concepts like artificial
intelligence and robotics his area of research
interest without the use of computers or
In one activity, each of four
volunteers plays the role of a robot component:
the brain, left arm, right arm and eyes. Blindfolds
and grocery bags are used to disable all body
functions but the one each volunteer represents
the "arms" are blindfolded and
the "brain" is covered by a grocery
bag. The various parts must coordinate each other
to perform a simple task: putting one cardboard
box atop another.
"The brain has to coordinate
with the eyes to give instructions to the arms,"
Kumar says. When four people try to interact as
one robot, "all the problems with robotics
become apparent, and a lot of interesting things
happen," he explains. "Its also
fun to do with the kids."
Jody Cohen says that participants
"tend to develop a community among themselves"
during the two weeks of the program. "Getting
to talk to other teachers in that sustained, creative
context can be itself a transforming experience,"
During the academic year,
Grobstein often visits participants' schools to
host in-service days or speak to students in their
classrooms. Lincoln High's Karen Cohen invited
him to speak about the brain in the context of
a literature unit on "The American Dream,"
in which students explored various perspectives
on gender differences.
"Although I teach English,"
she says, "I am not a stranger to the sciences
and strive to familiarize students with science
concepts and history as they relate to literary
themes and issues. With that objective in mind,
I participated in the Summer Institutes so that
I could better approach the daunting task of creating
meaningful and novel learning activities for my
John Gossin, a past Summer
Institutes participant now retired from Lamberton
High School, says he incorporated the program
content into his understanding of students' behavior.
"I reoriented my teaching to be more hands-on
and more tactile," he says. "I became more aware
of my students as total learners, not just passive
Grobstein believes that the
Summer Institute program not only serves pre-college
educators but also benefits the College's own
academic programs. Interacting with pre-college
teachers has led College faculty members to re-assess
their own teaching. "It's been enlightening to
realize that the difficulties one faces in reaching
our students are similar to the obstacles encountered
by the Philadelphia middle-school or high-school
faculty. In both cases, the students think differently
from the teacher," he explains. "The trick is
to understand how the students are thinking, then
figure out how to get from here to there and make
"Another benefit," Grobstein
adds, "is increased interaction and mutual support
among College faculty engaged in rethinking our
own science curricula. I learned a lot from working
with Liz McCormack [associate professor of physics]
last year, as I did from Victor Donnay [professor
of mathematics], Alison-Cook-Sather [assistant
professor of education], Deepak Kumar and others
in previous years. There is genuine enthusiasm
for finding still better ways of working with
our own students, and the networks generated by
the Summer Institutes are playing an important
role in that. Together, we can get less wrong
About the Author
Barbara Spector writes on
science and technology as well as business topics.
She is the executive editor of Family Business
magazine and former editor of The Scientist.