Scientists Nurture Teachers’ Growth in Math and Science

By Sean Cavanagh — November 16, 2007 7 min read
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Imagine a classroom filled with thousands of feet of cable and a pair of microscopes four stories high. Students work alongside top-tier scientists, who use the surrounding instruments to probe nuclear matter in the hope of one day producing breakthroughs in science and technology.

The classroom in this case is known as Hall A, located in the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility. And the students are science teachers, who come to the federal laboratory in Newport News, Va., as part of an unusual professional-development opportunity.

The Academies Creating Teacher Scientists program pairs top federal scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy with middle and high school teachers from around the country who want to improve their classroom skills.

Teachers spend four to eight weeks for three consecutive summers under the tutelage of scientists at federal labs of their choice, crafting activities and lessons they can use in their classrooms.

See Also

For more stories on this topic see Curriculum and Learning.

The program is just one of many sponsored by federal agencies that offer training to mathematics and science teachers. Although some officials question the effectiveness of those efforts, they have proved popular with teachers seeking help beyond what they can find on the more traditional circuit of educator workshops and conferences.

One first-year participant in the Energy Department’s program this past summer was Joseph J. Amma, an 8th grade teacher from North East Middle School, in Maryland, about 50 miles from Baltimore. Mr. Amma was one of 17 science teachers who were introduced to scientific equipment and resources at the lab, then worked together with help from federal scientists to design simple in-class activities and experiments based on the science they saw there.

“We didn’t have someone just talking at us,” Mr. Amma said. “We were physically engaged, rather than someone just coming in and giving us a lecture.” The scientists at the lab, he said, showed the teachers “very simple concepts, taken to a very advanced level.”

A Confidence Game

About 200 teachers have taken part so far in the academies program, which was launched in 2004 and has a $2.3 million annual budget. Educators apply online to work at any of 12 Energy Department labs across the country with researchers who specialize in a variety of fields, not just energy.

Participating teachers work with mentor-scientists, who guide them through research projects and provide them with seminars and demonstrations related to the lab’s work. Teachers also draw up online professional-development plans describing how they will continue to improve their teaching skills, and they write curricula based on lab experiences. They are encouraged to stay in touch with the lab scientists during the school year.


Teachers accepted to the Academies Creating Teacher Scientists program spend four to eight weeks picking up classroom ideas and skills from scientists.

Program features:

About 200 teachers have participated so far.

In addition to on-site training, teachers receive stipends and can apply for grant funding for classroom materials, further training, and travel.

12 U.S. Department of Energy labs train teachers through the program:
Ames National Laboratory (Iowa)
Argonne National Laboratory (Ill.)
Brookhaven National Laboratory (N.Y.)
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Ill.)
Idaho National Laboratory (Idaho)
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Calif.)
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Calif.)
National Renewable Energy Laboratory (Colo.)
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Tenn.)
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (Wash.)
Sandia National Laboratories (N.M.)
Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (Va.)

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Energy

Teachers receive stipends of $800 a week during the program, and can apply for grants of up to $4,000 per year to buy lab equipment for their classes and to pursue other professional development. Depending on how far their homes are from the federal energy facilities, they can live in housing at the labs. Mr. Amma, whose school is located in North East, Md., and another teacher from there, Jennifer L. Everett—who also happens to be his fiancée—took that option, bunking in the same facility as visiting scientists and students who come from around the world to work at the Jefferson accelerator facility.

A typical day, Ms. Everett said, began with a lecture from a lab scientist, followed by a presentation or tour of one part of the facility. Afternoons were spent on group activities focused on improving classroom skills. Teachers also built equipment for their classes from scratch, based on the science under discussion. They were expected to reflect on their observations in online journals.

The goal, as with many professional-development programs, is to produce teachers skilled and confident enough to act as leaders who can help their colleagues when they return to their home districts, said Jan Tyler, the science education manager at the Jefferson lab.

Building that confidence takes time. It’s easy for teachers to feel intimidated by their mentors, who have vast scientific knowledge and lengthy professional credentials, Ms. Tyler noted. The Jefferson lab, which has a total staff of about 700 employees, conducts cutting-edge research on nuclear physics, with a focus on the nucleus of the atom.

“The teachers feel like they’re not as important as the scientists are. That’s something we’re trying to fix,” Ms. Tyler said. “They need to hear that they’re very important to the future of this country. They don’t hear that enough.”

Douglas W. Higinbotham, a staff scientist has worked with teachers in the program, appreciates the role educators play. He remembers how two of his high school teachers—in junior-year chemistry and senior-year physics—helped set him on his professional path.

“They were not big on memorization—they were big on concepts,” he said. “That really got me hooked.”

Mr. Higinbotham, a nuclear physicist, tries to follow a similar philosophy in working with teachers. He introduces them to various concepts and discusses how lab instruments are used, such as the massive microscopes in Hall A known as spectrometers.

One of his recent projects centered on cosmic rays—particles that flood Earth from beyond its atmosphere, though they cannot be seen or felt. He had teachers research the topic on their own, and, over the course of several weeks, introduced them to the techniques scientists use to detect the rays. He wants teachers not only to understand the concept, but also how scientists study phenomena that are not readily detectable.

Along with the Department of Energy, federal agencies overseeing training programs for math and science teachers include the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and the National Aeronautic and Space Administration.

NASA has long been involved in K-12 education. The agency stages institutes for 300 to 500 teachers preparing to enter classrooms and offers programs that serve about 1,000 current science and mathematics educators a year, said Jim Stofan, a deputy assistant administrator for the space agency.

Addressing Weaknesses

Those federal programs have come under increasing pressure to show results, however. A report released in May questioned the effectiveness of 105 math and science programs with combined budgets of $3 billion scattered across agencies, including those focused on teachers. Congress mandated the report, which was released by the Academic Competitiveness Council, a federal panel chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

The Energy Department has established a process for evaluating the academies that is consistent with the council’s report and will take effect in fiscal 2008, said Bill Valdez, the agency’s associate director of workforce development for teachers and scientists.

But he also noted that department officials initially designed the academies based on what he regards as research-proven strategies—namely, giving teachers sustained support, rather than one-time help, and connecting them with mentor scientists and exceptional teachers. “We were pretty confident going into the program that it would be successful,” Mr. Valdez said in an e-mail.

For Mr. Amma and Ms. Everett, the Maryland teachers, the chance to study at a federal lab, and bring that experience back to their classrooms, was too good to pass up.

Among the most productive activities, Ms. Everett said, were sessions in which she and other teachers were asked to examine their strengths and weaknesses in the classroom—and come up with activities to help them address their shortcomings. She wanted ideas about devising activities that could be used with both high- and low-performing science students. Over the summer, with help from other teachers and the lab’s staff members, Ms. Everett conceived projects that focused on eddy currents and electrical fields, which she will use with both groups.

Lab officials broadened teachers’ knowledge of science by asking them to build various devices from scratch. Ms. Everett and Mr. Amma were both asked to construct a “ring fling,” a small, pole-like object made of wire, pipe, and other materials, which the teachers plan to use this school year in their lessons on electricity and magnetism.

Mr. Amma has produced a slide show of his experiences at the lab, which demonstrates various high-tech equipment at work. It’s been a hit, so he’s trying to space the show out over the semester to keep students hooked.

“I thought they would get sick of them, but the kids keep wanting [more],” said Mr. Amma, who remarks that his own enthusiasm has been rekindled. “When you come back, you have genuine excitement for science,” he said. “It changes you in what you see scientifically.”

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Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at www.kauffman.org.
A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2007 edition of Education Week


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