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Q & A: Educator Discusses Project That Takes Teachers Far Afield

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The University Research Expeditions Program at the University of California at Berkeley has found a unusual way to improve the quality of science education in schools: send teachers out into the field.

Beginning about 10 years ago, program officials appealed to middle-level and high school teachers to take part in the university's social- and physical-science expeditions in places as far afield as Africa and South America. Under the Teacher Research Participation Program, believed to be the only university-based effort of its kind, educators--primarily from California, but also from several other states--have spent several weeks of the summer on-site, and returned to incorporate their findings into classroom curricula.

Many of the teachers have participated with the financial support of the National Science Foundation and private donors.

The program's director, Jean Colvin, spoke about it with Staff Writer Joanna Richardson.

Q. How did U.R.E.P.'s teacher program evolve?

A. The teacher program started in the early 80's and has evolved and changed over time. It's distinguished from the regular program because the teachers who participate receive financial subsidies.

And they not only participate in the field work, but they get involved in curriculum development based on their field experience. The whole idea is to give them hands-on science experiences, with researchers at the forefront of their fields, that they can take back to the classroom and share in a meaningful way with their students.

Q. How do you help them incorporate their field experiences into the curriculum?

A. We have a three-day pre-expedition orientation that includes panel presentations from faculty researchers, discussion sections, and a variety of different presentations by teachers who have been in the program before. Also, we have curriculum-development people addressing things that can help teachers plan, think about what they can do in the field, and collect the kinds of things that will be good in the classroom.

When the teachers come back, we have a post-expedition workshop. Again, we have specialists in the field who talk about developing curriculum and give them some tools to work with.

I have had so many people tell me the on-campus part of the program was just as exciting as the field experience. I think teachers really hunger for that kind of collegial contact.

We also ask teachers who complete the program to do an inservice at their school and at least one presentation either to a community group or a professional meeting so that they also gain those kinds of experiences and skills.

We make those [final projects] available to any teacher in the program. In fact, this year, one of the things we're trying to do is pull together the best lesson plans into some kind of comprehensive packet. One of our goals has been to strive to make whatever comes out of the program useful by a teacher who might not ever have gone on a research expedition.

Q. What kinds of teachers normally participate in the program? Are they only social-studies and science teachers?

A. Yes, primarily because of our funding limitations, they are science and social-studies teachers. But one of the things we look at when we review the applications is the relevance of the project the person has indicated they want to join to what they teach. The idea is to integrate what they do into their classroom.

We're also making a very concerted effort to get teachers of color and also bilingual teachers. Ideally, one of the real thrusts we're trying to make is to get teachers who speak Spanish, because we have so many projects in Latin America. And a number of them are actually working with teachers from those countries.

Q. Which projects involve education?

A. There's a project in Guatemala where teachers will actually be doing research in Guatemalan schools. And, on the project in Ecuador that I'm co-leading, one of the things we're going to be doing is developing classroom materials for a village.

Last year we had the local teacher [in the Ecuadoran village] involved with the project. And two years ago we ran a series of workshops that were actually teacher exchanges, where we brought down U.S. teachers [to Ecuador] and then invited their counterparts from rural communities to do some environmental-education workshops and fieldwork.

Q. In your opinion, what have been the most successful expeditions for teachers?

A. I think the ones that combine scientific activities and getting to know local people have probably been the most effective, in the sense that they give the teachers a really broad view of what happens in the area.

I think wherever teachers have opportunities to meet local people that it just enriches the experience tremendously. The Ecuador project has been like that.

The other one that has a lot of contact with the local community is the project we have in Costa Rica. The project leader has in the last five years gotten very involved in developing a community environmental center by working with teachers and students in the area where the team is based.

So teachers who have gone on that one have really enjoyed that experience, because they're not only doing the hands-on science work, ... but they have opportunities to visit the schools and talk to teachers.

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