Museums Are Dabbling in Teacher Training, and the Results Are Promising

Middle school teachers (from left) Clarissa Martinez, Raphael Tomkin, and Ian Weissman take field notes on an exhibit during a training program at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Middle school teachers (from left) Clarissa Martinez, Raphael Tomkin, and Ian Weissman take field notes on an exhibit during a training program at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
—Sarah D. Sparks/Education Week
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In the dimly lit Hall of Mammals in the American Museum of Natural History here, small clusters of teachers scrutinized dioramas of animal habitats from around the world, filling in sheets of field observations.

The task served as a way to help teachers think through how their students would experience the exhibits, and how teachers could tie their students' exploration of the museum to public data sets on temperature, rain, and other climate factors that could affect where plants and animals live.

The workshop was part of Urban Advantage, a long-running partnership between the Big Apple's school district and local museums, zoos, and botanical gardens—and part of a growing trend of closer collaboration among museums and schools to encourage educators to bring learning outside the classroom and into the community. Urban Advantage is part of a national network of school-museum partnerships in Boston, Denver, and Miami as well.

"These programs have a profound influence on student interest in and attitude toward science, in addition to providing assistance to teachers and creating datasets for use in informal science institutions," said Jennifer Elliott, a researcher and educator with the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum in New York, which is not part of Urban Advantage, in a study on the trend of museum-school partnerships.

Elliott found that as schools focused more on accountability testing in the last decade, museums saw significantly less interest in field trips—Boston's New England Aquarium lost 25 percent of its in-school visitors from 2005 to 2008, for example—and more cultural and science institutions have refocused school engagement on integrating teacher training and out-of-school learning to complement school curriculum and standards.

In New York, Urban Advantage gives every teacher enough vouchers for every student in his or her class, plus those students' families, to return to the museums on their own—a big incentive, teachers say, for students whose families rarely visit or have even heard of the participating science institutions.

"We're very place-based," said Jay Holmes, a senior coordinator for professional development at Urban Advantage. "One of our founding principles is taking advantage of the cultural resources here."

Newly released research results from an ongoing study suggest the approach shows some promise at boosting student-test scores and retaining early-career teachers.

The program includes intensive, long-term professional development for teachers on-site at the partner institutions and out in the New York area. Teachers commit to 40 hours of mostly weekend training in the first year, just over 22 hours in each of the second two years, and 12 hours in the fourth year, with Urban Advantage providing stipends for weekend training and reimbursement for substitute teachers during the week.

Each cohort of teachers meets for five themed workshops at different museums throughout the year. Staff from the science centers and gardens also train science teachers to integrate more of the nuts and bolts of science work—collecting data from the field and secondary sources, laying out hypotheses, and planning and carrying out experiments in an ongoing project with other students.

Hands-On Experience

"We try to apply the Next-Generation Science Standards to understand a phenomenon," said Gloria Toombs, a 7th grade science teacher from Bronx PS/MS 95, who is part of this year's cohort of teachers. For every task, she said, teams of teachers work through the project "so we can work out all the bugs."

During a session in the fall, teachers learned to structure lessons around original data collection throughout the city. Field scientists taught the teachers how to collect packets of wet leaves and debris to study ecosystems at the water's edge.

Raphael Tomkin, a 7th and 8th grade science teacher at PS 233 in Manhattan, admits he wobbled a bit as he walked along the water-soaked banks of the Hudson River.

"Getting a paper [lesson plan], even if you read it thoroughly—and I do—it's very different from if you get to do it yourself," he said. "Teachers can't get everything they need from paper," he said, then grinned. "Doing it ourselves means I now know how mushy the ground is right on the bank."

Each teacher also receives $500 to pay for science materials for his or her classrooms.

"We didn't just do a [professional development] where we see something amazing that we can't do with our kids because we don't have the resources," said Rachelle Travis, a science teacher for grades 6-8 at PS 288 in the Coney Island section of the city, who has participated in the program for four years.

For example, Ian Weissman, an 8th grade science teacher at MS 250 in Manhattan, used the money to pay for new microscopes for the lab. He then used project plans developed during last year's training to teach his students how to collect and analyze levels of dissolved oxygen at various points along the Hudson River, to gauge pollution in the waterway.

Partners are the New York City education department and eight major science institutions across the city's five boroughs: the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the New York Botanical Garden, the New York Hall of Science, the Queens Botanical Garden, the Staten Island Zoo, the Bronx Zoo, and the New York Aquarium.

Keeping Teachers, Boosting Students

Meryle Weinstein, a research assistant professor for education policy at New York University's Steinhardt School for Culture, Education and Human Development, has studied and evaluated the program as it grew from a handful of pilot teachers in 2005 to some 870 teachers and 92,500 students in nearly half the city's middle schools in 2017.

In evaluations presented at the American Educational Research Association meeting here last month, Weinstein and her colleagues found that the students of teachers who had taken part in the program scored significantly higher on the state's 8th grade science test, and they were 4 percentage points more likely to score "proficient" on the exam than students whose teachers had not been in the training.

A separate 2017 study of the program also found that teachers who participated in the training were 3 percent more likely to stay at their school the following year— which translates into about 45 teachers districtwide.

Early-career teachers with three to five years of experience benefited from the program more; those who participated were 16 percent more likely to remain in teaching than their colleagues who did not take part in the Urban Advantage program.

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Josh Winterfield, an 8th grade science teacher at Wagner Middle School, said most of the professional development he was sent to as a young teacher was "completely useless; too simple, mostly basic content—we had several days of [professional development] just on how to set up the state test."

He joined Urban Advantage nearly nine years ago, and "it was the first PD that expanded on what I was doing and made me a better teacher." Winterfield has continued to come back for classes ever since, even becoming a trainer himself.

This year, Urban Advantage also launched a pilot program with 46 teachers in grades 3-5 at 21 elementary schools in the city.

The positive results echo those for similar school-museum professional development partnerships around the country. A 2014 study of a museum-based professional-development program at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, for example, found that the program led to gains in both teacher content knowledge and student achievement.

Vol. 37, Issue 29, Pages 1, 12

Published in Print: May 2, 2018, as Museums, Teachers Team Up on Science
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