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Montgomery County, MD, Public Schools

TSAI: Exploring Roles for Scientists in Collaboration with the Montgomery County, Maryland, Public Schools

Background. Montgomery County, Maryland, Public Schools (MCPS), with 126 elementary schools, constitutes the nation's eighth largest school system. It has many of the challenges of an urban school district, with a student population that is economically, racially, and ethnically diverse as well as transient (some 18% move in or out, on average, each year). But it is also a county with a high concentration of life scientists (it is the site of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus and many related research organizations), of physical scientists and engineers (it contains the National Institute of Science and Technology and many related research organizations), and of earth and space scientists (it is the location of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is near NASA's Goddard Space Center). Also, it is very near the national headquarters of the American Physical Society.

Connection with the APS/TSAI. Because the MCPS has been engaged in systemic reform of its elementary science education since 1993 and because of the high concentration of scientists and engineers in the area, the MCPS program has provided an opportunity to involve scientists in a variety of roles. This process has been particularly encouraged by Dr. Ramon Lopez of the APS/TSAI, among others. Dr. Lopez's involvement with MCPS, which started as a personal effort in 1988 and moved to a much higher level when he became director of the TSAI in 1994, also represents the kind of involvement that a very committed scientist can have in improving science education.

Overview of MCPS Reform Effort. The origin of the MCPS reform effort was a 1988 survey of teachers, principals, and parents showing that elementary school teachers were devoting less than one hour per week to science instruction, that they felt unprepared to teach science, and that they actively desired more training and better instructional materials.

In response, the superintendent formed a community advisory group, which happened to include Lopez, a space-plasma physicist who had already demonstrated an interest in science education in the school system. The group's recommendations included moving to a science curriculum -- teaching and materials -- that emphasized science experiences and mastering science processes.

Acting on these recommendations, MCPS then moved quickly:

  • In 1991, MCPS requested and received a National Science Foundation grant to develop a cadre of lead teachers to provide training in both content and pedagogy to other teachers and to establish a science materials support center.
  • That summer, MCPS sent a team, which included Dr. Lopez as its scientist member, to the National Science Resources Center's www National Elementary Science Leadership Institute.
  • Over the next two years, the MCPS concentrated on training lead teachers who would then train teachers. The lead teachers were also used to field-test kit-based modules from National Science Foundation-funded elementary science curriculum projects.
  • In 1993-4, the lead teachers began training regular teachers in 19 of the MCPS's 126 elementary schools.

APS/TSAI Involvement with MCPS -- Roles for Scientists. The involvement of the APS began soon after the training of regular teachers, when the TSAI was formed and Lopez, who had now spent three years as a consultant to the National Science Resources Center, became the TSAI's director. Three roles for scientists have been considered and, with close collaboration between the APS and MCPS, two have actually been implemented.

  • Scientists as resource agents in classrooms. The leaders of MCPS's science education reform considered involving scientists in classrooms, but they rejected the idea: there was no mechanism for providing scientists with the training needed to be effective in the classroom; the teachers were still too insecure to welcome their presence; and a scientist visiting classrooms for two or three days in a year would affect too few children.
  • Scientists as science content resources for teachers. In this role, scientists, who have been recruited by the APS in collaboration with the NIH, participate along with teachers in two one-day workshops a year. Each workshop or "unit-training" is on a single instructional unit (module) that the teachers will be teaching. The scientists are also encouraged to attend a half-day workshop on "extensions" for each module. The workshops are conducted by MCPS lead teachers. During the workshops, the scientists are available as resources on the science content of the units and begin to make connections with the teachers. The APS prepares the scientists for this involvement with a one-day workshop on hands-on inquiry-centered teaching, using a kit-based module as an illustration.

    Surveys of these workshops have indicated that the teachers find the scientists useful as content resources and the scientists learn a lot about science education and especially teachers. But the scientists feel that they don't do enough and that their offer to be consulted by the teachers whenever the teachers feel the need is rarely taken up. It is conjectured that the low scientist-to-teacher ratio at the workshops (it ranges from 1:8 to 1:30, for space reasons) may be the reason that no real partnerships develop.
  • Scientists as partners with lead teachers. In the fall of 1996, the third year of scientist involvement in MCPS's systemic reform, MCPS and TSAI leaders started a new program. In it, scientists are teamed with one or two lead teachers in half-day sessions. The teams do a very careful, lesson-by-lesson analysis of modules destined to be used by regular teachers. The teams seek to identify and discuss the science concepts and techniques the student should learn and how one would know what the student had actually learned.

    Although it is too early to draw conclusions with any confidence, leaders believe this is a fruitful role for the scientists, one in which real science is discussed, real scientific habits of thinking are modeled and learned, and real partnerships between teachers and scientists begin to form. Nevertheless, the APS still believes that scientists should first participate in the unit-training workshops for one or two years to becoming acquainted with the issues of science education reform.

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