When physicist Paul Doherty, a senior staff scientist at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, wants to help budding science teachers understand the material they’ll impart to students, he shows them the light.
He takes them to one of the many exhibits at the Exploratorium museum that allow them to experience the wonder of physics for themselves, including the way a beam of light bends as it goes through glass. Then he asks them what they see.
Next, the teachers craft lesson plans, or classroom versions of exhibits called “snacks,” on light refraction that they can take back to their own students.
This inquiry-based, hands-on approach to science instruction is at the core of the Exploratorium’s Teacher Induction Program, a training initiative offered by the museum’s Teacher Institute for first- and second-year secondary science teachers.
“We show our teachers that what they should really do is start science class not with a list of words to memorize, but with an encounter of the phenomena itself,” said Doherty, a former university physics professor. “By listening to what teachers see, I know as an instructor where they are and where to start working with them. That’s modeling what they can do for their own students.”
The Exploratorium, a public learning laboratory and museum that explores science, art, and human perception, has been a professional home for science teachers and scientists in the San Francisco Bay Area for decades—serving as a think tank of collaboration between those in the classroom and those in the lab.
The museum’s teacher-induction program, which spans two years for each cohort, is likely the first and longest-running science-specific initiative of its kind, according to Julie Yu, a senior scientist and the director of the Teacher Institute. It was created in 1998 out of a desire to help new science teachers thrive and stay in the classroom. Most participants in each 25-member cohort teach locally, many in high-needs schools.
The 50 teachers in the program at any one time have access to a rare mix of pedagogical and subject-area expertise: Half the teaching staff at the museum’s Teacher Institute are Ph.D. scientists, while the other half are veteran teachers with 10 to 30 years of classroom experience.
“We are modeling—not necessarily intentionally—the kind of teaching and excitement for science that we hope we would see in classrooms,” said Yu, who also started out as a new teacher in the program. “The program is founded on the philosophy of meeting teachers where they are and giving them what they need.”
Responding to a Need
To apply to the Exploratorium’s induction program, teachers must be in their first or second year of teaching in a local secondary science classroom and be willing to adopt an inquiry-based instructional approach. But the program turns away as many as 40 applicants for the 25 available spots each fall, using an analysis of instructional-support needs to select candidates.
Funding for the program began with a grant from the National Science Foundation, but its reputation has since expanded to contributions from public and private sources to the extent that every teacher in the program not only attends for free but also receives a stipend.
Teachers in the program attend at least four pedagogy and content workshops at the museum each semester, as well as a three-week summer institute and elective courses for specific subjects. The program covers all areas of grades 6-12 science—including how to adapt teaching to the Next Generation Science Standards.
That part wasn’t a far leap, said Doherty, because the standards’ engagement with science through activity rather than memorization “encapsulates the way we’ve been teaching for 32 years.”
As the push for better STEM learning continues in K-12 schools and careers, support programs for math and science educators have been growing. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education estimates that more than 4,000 science-specific teacher-induction and teacher-training programs are operating nationwide, according to its analysis of 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Education. Programs such as the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation’s Teaching Fellows Program, Math for America’s Early Career Teacher Fellowship, and the New Teacher Center’s e-Mentoring for Student Success help early-career science, technology, engineering, and math educators.
The Exploratorium’s participants are drawn from a state grappling with the highest student-teacher ratio in the country—24-to-1 compared to the national 16-to-1 average—according to a report this year from the Learning Policy Institute, a California-based think tank. The report also says that California’s supply of teachers is at a 12-year low, and enrollment in teacher-preparation programs has dipped by more than 70 percent in the last 10 years.
The demand for teachers is particularly high in STEM education fields. In the past four years, according to the Learning Policy Institute’s report, the number of preliminary credentials given to new and prepared science teachers in California has dropped 14 percent. The national teacher-attrition rate for all K-12 science teachers is similar to that in other subject fields, at 6.5 percent annually compared with 7.7 percent for all teachers, according to a 2012-13 analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics. But a smaller study of 2,000 beginning teachers by the federal National Center of Science and Engineering Statistics found that 25 percent of secondary science and math teachers left in 2009-10 after three years, compared with 10 percent of other secondary teachers.
The Exploratorium’s induction program is designed to counter such trends by giving new science teachers access to a supportive professional community and enhancing their development as educators. And evidence suggests that the program’s approach is effective. A recent survey of its induction-program graduates through 2010—with a 37 percent response rate—found that 91 percent of respondents stayed in the classroom for at least five years, and 73 percent of graduates who responded are still teaching in K-12 settings. Only 3 percent had left education-related fields altogether.
For Laura Hodder, who was in one of the program’s earliest cohorts, the Exploratorium’s philosophy of science learning through exploration has provided a “lifeline” for her vocation as an educator. As an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco, Hodder now teaches science curriculum and instruction to student-teachers working toward certification. Her piece of parting advice for prospective teachers is to apply to the Exploratorium, so they can “move beyond what the textbook has to offer and craft classrooms that get students excited about science,” she said.
‘A Safe Place’ to Grow
The Exploratorium has a bustling science-educator community that the museum’s leaders fondly call a “guild,” and former participants in the induction program often return as support staff themselves. As a result, new teachers can develop a deep understanding of the content they will be teaching from both scientists and those who have experience in K-12 classrooms.
“There are so many hurdles to becoming a teacher, and science teachers have all the material to learn on top of that,” said program coordinator Lori Lambertson. “Because we exist outside of the state and district, we can provide a safe place for new teachers to grow as learners.”
Through the program, participants develop curricula and experiments for their classroom with the help of staff scientists. The institute also provides additional support in and out of the classroom from mentors and classroom coaches and hosts an active listserv run by the staff scientists and teachers.
Robert Coverdell, a current second-year participant, used those support resources to design a fall curriculum for his students at Downtown High School in the San Francisco Unified district. The students at the credit-recovery school will learn math by studying the geometry of their faces and the science of gender by looking at differences in the brain. Coverdell said his biggest challenge has been creating a unique curriculum every semester for his math, science, and theater program. With the induction-program staff’s input, he has been able to craft lessons more quickly, he said.
“This year, I feel so much more comfortable coming to school every day, and I can see the students responding better because class is more linear in fashion,” Coverdell said. “Having that space to talk to other teachers about the content I am teaching is so much more fruitful than teaching by myself.”
The 21 veteran teachers who serve as mentors and classroom coaches in the program attend training at the Exploratorium’s Leadership Institute not only to help new teachers but also to strengthen their own leadership at the school and district level. Tammy Cook-Endres and Zeke Kossover, former K-12 science educators who co-direct the program, invite alumni of the Teacher Institute to apply to become mentors and coaches after observing their support of other teachers.
“Providing the evidence for figuring things out is one of the jobs of teachers,” Kossover said. “We want mentors and coaches to be focused on being able to give that kind of science-specific support which is often not available to teachers in any other way. These teachers want to give back and help new teachers because they know how hard it is.”
Bree Barnett Dreyfuss, a physics teacher at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, Calif., is an alum of the Exploratorium induction program and a current staff mentor. She said she took the position as mentor to provide the same kind of support that got her through her own first year of teaching 11 years ago. Much of her mentoring work this year with seven new teachers is drawn from her experiences in the classroom, but she also tries to provide the tools to let teachers experiment on their own. When she and her mentees get together for meetings, the conversation is often about what’s going to get teachers through Monday morning.
“This is an incredibly difficult job that is not well-understood and not well-supported,” said Barnett Dreyfuss. “At the Exploratorium, you have this giant group of people that are all trained in the same mindset, and we all support each other. When you have that kind of enthusiasm you are building within teachers, that will transfer to the students.”
Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.