Rural Educators Learn To Triumph Over Classroom Inertia

By Peter West — October 14, 1992 7 min read
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ALAMOSA, COLO.--Drawing her tie-dyed lab coat closely around her to avoid snagging her elaborate apparatus, Caren Kershner leans forward to adjust the egg she has placed atop a cardboard tube.

The tube is balanced on a pie plate, which, in turn, is nestled on the rim of a glass jar full of water.

Ms. Kershner then hands a broomstick to Stephanie Hensley, a student-teacher at nearby Adams State College, telling her to pull back on the handle while holding down the bristles with her foot.

“Now, let it go,’' she orders.

At her command, the broomstick arcs forward, violently knocking away the supporting structure, while the egg plops down into the jar.

“Okay,’' says Ms. Kershner, over the appreciative murmurs of her audience of rural science teachers. “That demonstrates the property of inertia.’'

She points out that the physical law dictates that bodies at rest, like the egg, remain at rest, unless directly acted upon by an outside force.

A fundamental concept in physics, she notes, it is a difficult one for most students to understand without the benefit of such a demonstration.

At the back of the room, meanwhile, Sue Anne Berger beams, and gives a knowing wink, at what Ms. Kershner says next.

Offering advice about where to obtain empty film canisters to serve as miniature beakers, she says to them, “If you’re ever in a city, all you’ve got to do is go by a photo store.’'

That “if’’ has driven Ms. Berger to log 32,000 miles on the state’s rural backroads in the course of a year.

In a van stuffed with household chemicals, she visits the remote ranching, mining, and farming communities of the Rocky Mountain State to convince rural teachers--many of whom may visit an urban area only once or twice a year--that they can teach meaningful science with materials from their local grocery stores.

She has taught those lessons to at least 1,600 teachers, and recruited at least 50 of them, including Ms. Kershner, to help her spread that message.

Doing ‘Big Things’

For Ms. Berger, the demonstrations she is watching represent the culmination of a personal commitment that she made in 1990 when she was selected as a Presidential Award-winning science teacher.

The nine-year-old program, managed by the Washington, D.C.-based National Science Teachers Association for the National Science Foundation, annually recognizes teachers from every state as well from the U.S. territories for their outstanding work and awards each winner a stipend of $7,500.

The gruff and outspoken daughter of a farming family, Ms. Berger says she deliberately set out to make that seed grant grow into a meaningful program of science support for rural teachers.

“I know rural,’' she says. “And I knew what those teachers needed.’'

She began to canvass local businesses to obtain materials to teach the “bare essentials’’ kind of science that teachers might welcome in communities where the closest grocery store may be an hour’s drive away.

And, as a former officer of the Colorado Science Teachers Association, she immediately began to lobby her friends in the state’s science-education community to support her initiative.

High on her list was John U. Trefny, the head of the physics department at the Colorado School of Mines and the coordinator of teacher-education programs at the college.

“That $7,500 grant was really the start of this. She put the money aside and started hustling for a van and some other materials,’' Mr. Trefny says. “I doubt that anyone has leveraged [the award] as well as Sue.’'

By her own reckoning, Ms. Berger parlayed the money into $41,000 worth of support for rural science education, by obtaining donations of cash, equipment, and supplies from local grocery chains, scientific supply houses, the Coors Brewing Company, and U.S. West.

John Matis, the education program officer in the School of Mines’s geology department, meanwhile, convinced the state’s Chevrolet dealers to donate a $17,000 customized van to put the “mobile science show’’ on the road.

“The main thing that she was missing was time’’ to get away from her classroom at Bear Creek High School, Mr. Trefny says.

But grants from the U.S. Education Department’s Dwight D. Eisenhower Mathematics and Science program and from the N.S.F. provided that freedom.

The $50,000 Eisenhower grant covered half of Ms. Berger’s salary, the balance being paid by the Jefferson County school system, from which she took a sabbatical, and some other expenses.

In the meantime, the School of Mines began to plan a summer institute to develop a network of 50 rural teachers, expose them to instruction in informal science, and provide them with the supplies to carry out their demonstrations.

Mr. Trefny says the school, unable to wait for approval from Washington, ended up paying the $100,000 cost of the summer institute, but a $218,000 grant, approved last spring by the î.ó.æ., covered that expenditure and will allow the program to continue into its second year.

“We encourage our Presidential awardees to do big things,’' says Herb Wylen, the N.S.F. official who administers the grant. “And [Ms. Berger] certainly has done that.’'

Putting Textbooks Away

Late last month, here in this small town in the shadow of the Sangre De Cristo mountains of southern Colorado, Ms. Berger sees the cooperative efforts come to fruition.

From the back of a chemistry classroom, she watches as Martha Dietz, a middle-school teacher in Bennett, Colo., and Marilyn Golden, an elementary teacher from Walsenburg, Colo., for the first time take on their roles as teachers of teachers.

Ms. Dietz and Ms. Golden, both graduates of the School of Mines summer institute, confess to being skeptical at first when their superiors had told them a year ago to attend Ms. Berger’s travelling seminar.

Ms. Golden, who teaches at Bennett Middle School in a “sub-suburb of Denver’’ on the state’s eastern plains, says that the practical grounding in science she received has helped her to make hands-on science instruction an integral, everyday part of her teaching.

It also has helped to move away from traditional pencil-and-paper testing to assessing her students by walking around the classroom as they conduct experiments, making notes on a small pad.

“I’ve pretty well put my textbooks away,’' she adds.

Ms. Dietz, who teaches 6th grade at Washington Elementary School in Walsenburg, a town of 1,200 in the Rocky Mountains, says that the science taught in Ms. Berger’s seminars is a good educational motivator for the poor, Hispanic students who constitute the majority of children in her community.

And while it often is difficult to convince underprivileged children that science and mathematics have any real meaning in their lives, she says, “these kind of activities are fantastic in drawing the kids in.’'

Particularly popular, she adds, is a multidisciplinary activity in which she reads from a book entitled “Bartholomew and the Oobleck,’' and then helps the children whip up their own version of the green, slimy substance featured in the story from water, food coloring, and corn starch.

The resulting product, Ms. Berger explains, is a “non-Newtonian solid’’ that appears firm under the slightest pressure, but turns into a fluid when picked up and held--a particular delight for young children.

‘This Is What It Takes’

The idea of travelling science shows is not unique to Colorado.

The Pacific Science Center in Seattle, for example, recently launched a travelling exhibit on geology for students in grades K-8.

And in Louisiana, the î.ó.æ. supports the work of Lawrence J. Blanchard Jr., a physics and mathematics teacher in Orleans Parish public schools, as he travels around six parish school districts with a vanload of physics equipment, doing demonstrations and providing logistical support for teachers.

“There is very little support for physics teachers,’' said Mr. Blanchard, who is on loan to the faculty of the University of New Orleans. “Our idea was to get them interested, and keep them interested, in hands-on physics.’'

Officials in Colorado note, however, that the scope of Ms. Berger’s project has the potential for bolstering an already strong rural science program by developing a network of mentor-teachers in the state’s 176 school districts and showing them that meaningful science does not rely on expensive and exotic equipment.

Mary Gromko, an official from the state education department and a former colleague of Ms. Berger’s, notes that although rural students in Colorado performed at the international average on a standardized science test, their teachers often feel very isolated from their peers, who many times may be 50 miles or more away.

Then Ms. Gromko nods across the room at Ms. Kershner, who is confidently fielding questions from eager colleagues and promoting enrollment in the next summer institute.

“It’s that kind of leadership we’re looking for,’' she says.

But, adds Ms. Berger, the size of the undertaking demands that the network grow steadily.

“This is what it takes,’' she notes as she prepares to hit the road for home, some 250 miles north. “Now, there are 50 of them doing this, instead of one of me.’'

A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 1992 edition of Education Week as Rural Educators Learn To Triumph Over Classroom Inertia

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