Strengthening Teacher-Scientist Partnerships

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Ask a scientist what “outreach” means to them, and the majority will mention something about working with K-12 students. Unfortunately, these types of interactions tend to be sporadic, poorly executed, and bereft of quantitative assessment and evaluation, depriving those involved of any true, long-lasting benefit. To rectify this situation, a disparate group of programs has sprung up across the country, each aiming to create substantial, sustainable partnerships between the scientific research and K-12 education communities.

ITSP Program CoverSeveral of these programs were on display at the second International Teacher-Scientist Partnership Conference, held February 11 and 12 in San Francisco, CA. Hosted by the UCSF Science and Health Education Partnership, the meeting brought together various stakeholders, including teachers, students, researchers and administrators, to share best practices and identify areas for improvement.

Highlighting the conference were the two keynote addresses, the first a discussion between former National Academies of Science President Bruce Alberts and Shirley Malcom, Director for Education and Human Resources Programs at AAAS. Both speakers applauded the formation of such partnerships, and emphasized the need for teachers and scientists to learn from each other. Malcom even went so far as to point out that implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) necessarily required such collaborations.

On the second day, Helen Quinn, former Chair of the National Research Council’s Board on Science Education, talked about the need for three-dimensional science learning that incorporated facts, practices and concepts, an approach that informed the development of the NGSS. Echoing Malcom, Quinn pointed to teacher-scientist partnerships as a necessary tool for implementing the NGSS, pointing out that the standards imposed new demands on science teachers that would be impossible to meet without the provision of additional, novel support and professional development.

The bulk of the conference was filled with overlapping sessions and workshops that showcased different approaches to forming and sustaining partnerships. Despite the differences between programs, several consistent themes did emerge:

  1. Defined roles and outcomes

Oftentimes, the biggest failing in these partnerships comes from the fact that the goals, objectives and intended outcomes have not been agreed upon by both sides beforehand, leading to confusion and ineffectiveness. All presenters pointed out that their success stemmed from jointly working with both scientists and teachers (and their students) to resolve these issues in advance of any activities, so that everyone was able to be on the same page. A second point of emphasis was that for a particular partnership to be successful, scientists need to act as resources and role models, rather than as instructors. In this way, scientists can greatly increase the accessibility students (and teachers) have to the research enterprise, helping to remove the barriers between these groups.

  1. Local, bottom-up approach

While expressing support for a concerted, national support network (such as the soon-to-be extinct NSF Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) Program), almost all presenters and attendees spoke about the need to develop programs and collaborations locally. Though all in attendance were in support of a concerted effort to effect broad change in the education system, there was a general agreement that focusing effort on working with individual classrooms, schools and even school districts allows for more fluid partnerships that are more easily able to steer clear of the messy politics so often responsible for impediments to reform in education.

  1. Sustainability (resources, participation)

Funding was a major issue for all involved, as financial support for non-traditional education activities is sporadic. Presentations from the West Virginia Health Sciences & Technology Academy and the Integrated Science Education Outreach (InSciEd Out) program at the University of Minnesota highlighted their ability to successfully raise funding from a wide variety of local sources, both big and small, again pointing to the need for local connections. Attendees added that another difficulty was in maintaining participation by both scientists and teachers, and suggested establishing pipelines that would funnel both towards each other.

  1. Evaluation and Assessment

Recognizing that assessing the impact of a particular activity or program is inherently difficult, most presenters were nonetheless able to point to a proven track record of improved STEM learning and performance for students, thanks to the ability to follow students throughout their primary education. More qualitative feedback from scientists and teachers demonstrates a nearly universal benefit in terms of professional development and willingness to engage and participate.

 

The conference will be held again in 2017, by which point even more programs will have undoubtedly arisen. In the interim, ASBMB will be using our connections and resources to increase awareness of, and participation by, our members in such partnerships. If you are interested in finding out more about these partnerships, contact the ASBMB Public Outreach Office at outreach@asbmb.org.

 

More information about the conference, including a list of participating programs, can be found here.

A summary of tweets from the meeting is available here.

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