Professional Development

Shark Teeth, Steinbeck, and More: Teachers Use Summer to Deepen Their Own Learning

By Williamena Kwapo — July 13, 2022 | Corrected: July 14, 2022 5 min read
Teachers discuss newly learned content and the connection to their own curriculum in preparation for developing customized lesson plans during a session on July 11, 2022.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story mischaracterizes Donna Neary’s teaching program. It’s about changing perspectives on human migration in U.S. history.

Melissa Atkins has been a science teacher in Florida for 25 years but never combined science with technology. Now, by participating in one of the hundreds of enrichment programs for teachers happening across the United States this summer, she has an opportunity to merge the two disciplines. She’s plugging into a branch of artificial intelligence called machine learning to teach computers how to identify the teeth of an extinct giant shark.

This week, as many of their peers sun on the beach or take much-needed vacations, Atkins and 13 other Florida science teachers will spend five days at the University of Florida learning about shark teeth and artificial intelligence in a program geared to teachers at the K-12 level.

Teachers say these kinds of experiences help them revitalize, bring new knowledge into the classroom, and expand their teaching repertoire—and, often, they don’t cost teachers a penny.

Atkins teaches science to 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students with special needs at Tradewinds Middle School in Greenacres, Fla. For her, an important part of being a teacher is creating a classroom where students feel just as capable of learning as their peers without learning disabilities. She does that by using project-based activities to bring science to life. Enrichment programs like this one help her do that.

“A lot of my students don’t get outside of that three-mile radius from school,” said Atkins. “So for me, by bringing in a program like this, it helps extend that circle a little further.”

Teachers applied for the yearlong training and were chosen for their experience and interest in the subject. The program, hosted by the University of Florida Thompson Earth Systems Institute’s Scientist in Every Florida School Program, is free for teachers to attend, provides a $2,500 stipend upon successful competition, and is specifically intended for teachers who primarily teach at schools that receive Title I funds.

Teachers practice taking photos of shark teeth to be uploaded into Google’s Teachable Machine.

Cathy Hammel, a 6th grade science teacher at Frostproof Middle Senior High School in Frostproof, Fla., is another teacher in the University of Florida program. For Hammel, participating in enrichment programs provides a chance to have a new experience, learn a new skill, and implement new and innovative ideas in her classroom in addition to gaining professional development credits to continue her teaching certification.

“I prefer more of the hands-on professional development workshops,” she said, “I saw firsthand with all this science knowledge I’m teaching to my kids, what they could end up doing 10 to 15 years down the road.”

Teachers brush up on Steinbeck, railroads, and Appalachia

The National Endowment for Humanities is among the best-known of the organizations that host teacher enrichment programs every summer. The federal agency offers a wide range of enrichment programs in science, history, and art for teachers seeking to enhance their own knowledge or provide diverse ways to keep their students engaged in the classroom. Currently, the organization is hosting an enrichment program at Stanford University called “John Steinbeck: Social Critic and Ecologist” about the work and impact of that American author.
Susan Shillinglaw, director of that program, said she designs her program keeping in mind that teachers are there to learn tools that would allow them to be more effective in the classroom.

Teachers who have participated in some of NEH’s enrichment programs said the experiences have left a lasting impact.

During a second career as an English and history teacher to high school English-language learners in the District of Columbia, Mary Ann Zehr was constantly seeking programs like those that NEH offers. In 2015, Zehr participated in her first NEH program, called “The Transcontinental Railroad: Transforming California and the Nation.”

The weeklong program at the University of California, Davis, brought K-12 teachers together for an in-depth look at the transcontinental railroad’s social, political, and economic impact on the United States. The following year, Zehr did another NEH program, called “Voices from the Misty Mountains and the Power of Storytelling,” where she traveled to West Virginia to explore the writing, culture, and history of Appalachian people, as represented by writers from the region. She translated the knowledge to lessons for her classroom, introducing new perspectives on Appalachian culture.

“I was motivated just to learn more content through a couple of these seminars,” she said “I think these programs help teachers to kind of get their creative juices going and connect with each other.”

Summer learnings translate to classroom practice

Like Zehr, Donna Neary found a unique way to bring history into her classroom of English-Language learners through an enrichment fellowship with Re-Imagine Migration, a U.S. based nonprofit focused on helping teachers and students understand migration history.

After her first career as a public historian, Neary became an educator in 2014. She was looking for opportunities to learn innovative approaches to teaching history to her high school English-learners in Louisville, Ky. In 2020, she filled out a brief application and was accepted into the Re-Imagine Migration fellowship program. Though the program was just four days long and held virtually, it has spurred her to delve more deeply intoteaching migration history.

“Re-imagining Migration is providing the space for conversations to happen around the movement of people and with absolute, complete respect and acknowledgment of the challenges that people face,” she said.

Her participation in the fellowship led to her being awarded a National Geographic Society grant to create her own program about changing perspectives on human migration throughout U.S. history.

One reason teachers say they participate in enrichment programs is because it requires them to introduce innovative ideas into their curriculum. For successful completion of the AI learning and the migration programs, teachers must develop a program or lesson plan to be implemented in their own classrooms. The University of Florida program even requires teachers to set up classroom visits from scientists during the academic year.

As a result of Atkins’s participation in various types of programs over the years, her students have collected data for NASA, grown endangered butterfly orchids, and soon will learn to teach computers how to use shape, color, and texture to identify ancient shark teeth.

“I have changed the direction of my classroom from a more traditional classroom to a more project-based classroom,” said Atkins. “My focus is on creating lifelong learners” and her summer experiences help her achieve that.

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