Published Online:

In S.F., Partnership Helps Teachers Take Hands-On Approach to Science

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments


SAN FRANCISCO--Sylvia Yee remembers being perplexed, but intrigued, when she received a phone call from Ramon C. Cortines, the superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, one day nearly three years ago. Mr. Cortines invited her to join him on a visit to a local elementary school.

"I remember him saying, 'Look Sylvia, there's something I really want you to see,' '' Ms. Yee, the education director of the San Francisco Foundation, a community philanthropy, recently recalled of the conversation.

What Mr. Cortines was so anxious to share with Ms. Yee was an exploratory approach to teaching elementary science employed by Bonnie Coffey-Smith, a resource teacher working in one of the district's science magnet schools.

Ms. Coffey-Smith's classroom, Ms. Yee found, was alive with activity, as children progressed from station to station, performing a variety of exercises designed to give them a personal stake in their science lessons.

Then, shortly after the classroom tour, Ms. Yee said, Mr. Cortines came to the point he was trying to make.

"'I want this to happen in every classroom [in the district],''' she recalled the superintendent saying.

Three-Way Partnership

That visit sparked a remarkable initiative undertaken by the district together with various community institutions. The idea was to develop a school culture in which elementary teachers consider science a vital part of the curriculum and are confident of their ability to translate scientific knowledge into meaningful lessons for young learners.

In the three years since the visit, the district has developed a leadership team of 27 motivated and intensively trained teachers who are expected to help produce a critical mass of like-minded teachers among their colleagues in 24 of the district's 36 elementary schools.

The district also has formed a partnership with the University of California at San Francisco, which launched its own training program to develop a separate cadre of 100 teachers, or approximately 17 per grade level, who will act as informal teacher-trainers in the remaining 12 schools.

The partnership took on a new dimension last year when the Exploratorium, a local science museum with a national reputation as a teacher-training center, received a federal grant to train a group of San Francisco Bay-area educators to act as science resource teachers for a handful of schools.

The effort has as its immediate goal making each of the district's elementary teachers competent to teach hands-on science with the new generation of materials and texts that California is scheduled to adopt early next year.

Along the way, the reform effort has thrust the district into an unfamiliar role as the fulcrum of a delicate balancing act as it coordinates the efforts of disparate institutions to reach a common goal.

And on a larger scale, those involved say they hope the initiative may one day serve as a model of systemic change for urban districts as they struggle to revamp their curricula to meet the national goals for improved science teaching and learning.

"We're seeing a lot of interest in science,'' said Ms. Coffey-Smith, who now heads the effort for the district. "Coming not only from our teachers, but from our principals as well.''

Making Reform a Priority

A host of national reports on effective science teaching have identified inadequate preparation of elementary-school teachers as a major barrier to inculcating an appreciation of science in young students.

Experts generally agree that while most students enter school naturally inquisitive about science, the majority of them--particularly female and minority students--become turned off to the subject by their late elementary- and early middle-school years.

Several factors seem to account for this unwelcome transformation. But observers frequently cite the inability of many elementary-school teachers, who often have little or no familiarity with scientific concepts or formal coursework in science education, to present science as both a meaningful and exciting body of knowledge and as a means of thinking in new ways about the world.

For example, writing in "Fulfilling the Promise: Biology Education in the Nation's Schools,'' a 1990 report of the National Research Council, a panel of experts stated that the elementary-school years "present an opportunity for teaching about the natural world that the nation's schools have failed to grasp.''

Mr. Cortines, who retired from the San Francisco superintendency in June, said in a recent interview that while science was an important part of the curriculum in many local elementary schools when he took over the district five years ago, the quality of science teaching in the early grades often was bleak.

"The district did not have a consistent, systematic K-5 program, or even a hint of one, when I arrived,'' he said.

Thus, spurred on by Ms. Coffey-Smith's example, encouraged by the enthusiasm for systemic change of Maria Santos, the district's science coordinator, and bolstered by the financial backing of Ms. Yee's foundation, Mr. Cortines decided to make reform of elementary science a priority.

The Museum's Role

Ms. Santos said the opportunity to improve the quality of teaching came at an opportune time in the life of the district.

At Mr. Cortines's direction, she and other officials performed an assessment of the science program. They then decided to change the existing program of instruction to focus on a kit-based curriculum, such as that used by Ms. Coffey-Smith, that was compatible with California's recently adopted science framework.

Teachers who underwent the leadership training have been charged with shaping the curriculum to conform to the state framework and tailoring it to the needs of the district's urban enrollment.

And just as the district was moving to overhaul its system, the state was gearing up to adopt new materials for science teaching, thereby providing a convenient benchmark for progress toward reform.

The hope, Ms. Santos said, is that when the state adopts new materials early next year, a significant number of teachers will be prepared to take the fullest advantage of the computer-based, interactive learning tools that are expected to join textbooks on the state's approved list.

Already, the district has established a central facility to distribute the kits and refurbish them as they are used, a move that significantly reduces the burden on individual teachers in adapting to the new techniques.

But, as Ms. Santos and Ms. Yee point out, the local reform efforts aim not only to enhance the professionalism of individual teachers, but also to change the culture of the school system.

"For an individual teacher to take this on alone would be almost impossible,'' Ms. Yee said. "We are trying to figure out how from a base of teacher interest we can develop widespread teacher competency. How you sustain this across a school system. And how you bring the administrators on board, because they're a very key piece of this puzzle.''

District officials believe that, despite some difficult adjustments on the part of those involved in the initiative, the reform effort continues to gain momentum.

Nearly a year ago, the partnership was strengthened when the Exploratorium received a grant from the National Science Foundation to provide hands-on experience to members of the science leadership team and their colleagues in the elementary schools and to help train a number of science resource teachers. These teachers, it is hoped, will come to rely on the museum to improve their own teaching and that of their peers.

Under the terms of the grant, six district teachers will be trained as science specialists who will assist in staff development and act as liaisons to the museum.

In part, the involvement of the Exploratorium reflects a trend among science museums nationally to focus their educational resources on improving the quality of science teaching. (See Education Week, June 10, 1992.)

But it also is an extension of a longstanding museum program that enrolls teachers as interns, according to Lynn Rankin, who directs the elementary-school program there.

"I think we'd gotten pretty good at moving individual teachers along,'' she said. "But there was really no mechanism for them then to go and help others move along.''

Like the interns, the teacher trainees will learn not only the scientific concepts behind the physics-based exhibits but also how to present the concepts in an accessible form.

Ms. Rankin, and teachers enrolled in the program, noted that the museum's emphasis on physics helps demystify that branch of science for teachers, who, if they have any science background at all, probably are more familiar with aspects of the "softer'' life sciences.

The University's Role

Meanwhile, across town on the University of California campus, a separate but parallel teacher-training effort is moving forward.

Launched last year by Bruce Alberts, a nationally known professor of biochemistry, the City Science Program aims to train a cohort of 100 elementary teachers over five years to employ the new kit-based modules approved by the district and to pass that knowledge along to their peers.

Supported in part by an N.S.F. grant, the program offers a series of four-week summer institutes in which teachers are introduced to the subject matter required to teach the lessons contained in the kits.

The kindergarten lesson, for example, which focuses on the topic of "Seeds and Weeds,'' is designed to encourage children to learn about the ways seeds migrate and germinate.

Other units include lessons on the physics of force and motion, an introduction to optics, and an introduction to controlled experimentation.

Annabelle Shreve, a teacher who helps coordinate the program, noted that, like the school district's own initiative, the program focuses on adapting existing teaching materials and techniques to the needs of an urban district.

For example, she said, teachers probably will have to modify the "Seeds and Weeds'' units in some segments of the city where no parks or green spaces exist.

But, she added, such modifications can be beneficial if teachers use ingredients from ethnic dishes, such as chili peppers, to illustrate the underlying concepts in the lessons.

She also pointed out that in San Francisco, as in many cities, lessons must be translated into several languages to serve a diverse student body.

Resistance Encountered

Despite the widespread support it has received, the district's reform effort has faced some setbacks.

Mr. Cortines pointed out that the city's teacher workforce is not a young one, and that many teachers are reluctant to change their methods late in their careers.

Ms. Yee of the San Francisco Foundation added that maintaining the support of parents for a long-term initiative that may not have an immediate payoff--on standardized test scores, for example--also has been a challenge.

"You can't really expect to see significant changes over the short term, and that's hard for the public to handle,'' she said.

Officials also have had to work hard to sell the idea of reform to many within the school bureaucracy who are leery of changes that may mean, for example, that the traditional school day has to be disrupted to accommodate new teaching styles.

To counteract open skepticism on the part of some administrators, for example, Mr. Cortines insisted that every school be involved in the in-service session at which the kit-based curriculum was introduced.

Ms. Santos, the science coordinator, pointed out that teachers also have to face the prospect of learning about a topic that many consider foreign and extraneous to their daily jobs.

"A big piece of this [project] is learning the science,'' she said. "We're asking teachers to do a lot more science than they've done before.''

"And this is not a small task,'' she stressed. "It's an incredible task.''

In order to teach collaborative, hands-on science effectively, Ms. Santos added, teachers will have to attune themselves to the sociology of teaching in urban areas.

"They'll have to ask themselves, for example, 'When I put two kids together, how do I make sure I don't put members of rival gangs together?''' she said.

She also noted that the cadre of lead teachers, who have suddenly been thrust into the unfamiliar role of teachers to their peers, have faced some difficulties adjusting.

"You have to remember that these people have been locked in their classrooms working with kids all these years,'' she said. "Now they have to learn to work with adults. That's not easy.''

'Healthy Tensions'

A comprehensive picture of how the reform is progressing, and particularly how the various elements are being coordinated, is expected to emerge when Inverness Research Associates, a California-based consulting firm, produces an independent evaluation.

The interim analysis was expected to be completed this summer, but it is likely to be delayed at least until the fall.

Mr. Cortines and others noted that university researchers have been frustrated by the experience of working within the bureaucracy of an urban school system.

"There have been healthy tensions,'' he said. "Everything has not been a piece of cake, and I feel that the university feels that the progress has not been as good as it should be.''

Museum and university officials acknowledge that more cooperation between their programs is needed, and the district recently stepped up its efforts to coordinate the various reform initiatives.

Meanwhile, Janice Lowe, an elementary teacher who is involved in every aspect of the partnership as a teacher leader, an Exploratorium intern, and a City Schools participant, said that concern about frictions between the the reform partners are secondary to its objectives.

"The goal is the same,'' she said. "It's for the kids in San Francisco to get positive science teaching regularly.''

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented