July 2002
The Knowledge Gap In Women's Health

Creating New Chemiluminescent Tools

Assessing Environmental Health Risks

Tackling Environmental Challenges

Cultivating Success in Mathematics

Summer Institutes for Philadelphia Teachers

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© 2003


Bryn Mawr College
A quarterly newsletter on research, teaching, management, policy making and leadership in Science and Technology

Summer Institutes for Philadelphia Teachers
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

Paul Grobstein, Eleanor A. Bliss Professor of Biology, started the institutes in 1990. 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."

2002 Agenda

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 education.

"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 other curricula.

Leveraging Experience

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 don’t spend two weeks lecturing or ignoring the fact that they’re 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. "She’s 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 high-tech equipment.

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. "It’s also fun to do with the kids."

Creative Context

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," she observes.

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 students."

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 ‘listening devices.’"

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 them comfortable."

"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 too."

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.

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