Who Teaches the Teachers?

The BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona is helping K-12 science teachers keep up with the pace of research and innovation.
Oct. 4, 2010
The mighty Manduca: science teacher Liz Prohaska raises Manduca caterpillars in her classroom. (Photo by Beatriz Verdugo / UANews)
The mighty Manduca: science teacher Liz Prohaska raises Manduca caterpillars in her classroom. (Photo by Beatriz Verdugo / UANews)
Liz Prohaska (left) showcases her classroom science projects to other K-12 science teachers at the 4th Annual K-12 Science Teacher Symposium. (Photo by Beatriz Verdugo / UANews)
Liz Prohaska (left) showcases her classroom science projects to other K-12 science teachers at the 4th Annual K-12 Science Teacher Symposium. (Photo by Beatriz Verdugo / UANews)
Glowing in the dark: at the Dark Skies Rangers workshop teachers trace the outline of the constellation Cygnus (The Swan) with glow-in-the-dark paints. The project will help students memorize the constellations. (Photo by Beatriz Verdugo / UANews)
Glowing in the dark: at the Dark Skies Rangers workshop teachers trace the outline of the constellation Cygnus (The Swan) with glow-in-the-dark paints. The project will help students memorize the constellations. (Photo by Beatriz Verdugo / UANews)
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Science teachers are charged with conveying the technical and often dubious notions of science to new generations of students, but with changes in researchers' understanding of science topics and new innovations emerging each year, how do the teachers keep their own knowledge current?

The BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona is helping K-12 science teachers keep up with the pace of research and innovation.

BIO5 recently hosted the 4th annual Arizona K-12 Science Teacher Symposium, which provided teachers with eight credits toward the annual recertification of their teaching licenses. More than 150 science teachers from 34 communities around the state attended the event, making BIO5 a focal point for networking among teachers.

"BIO5 has a really strong educational mission," said Kevin Hall, director of education, outreach and training at BIO5. The mission at BIO5 is threefold: sponsoring collaborative research, making positive change for society and inspiring students. Hall said that with the science teacher symposium: "We want to offer teachers some of the resources that are waiting at the UA and show them that we are really interested in what they're doing."

At the symposium, the teachers attended workshops, which gave them instruction on science topics and a variety of new ideas and activities for teaching science to K-12 students. The program included a selection of 17 workshops, a teacher resource fair and a reception and laser light show at Flandrau Science Center.

The workshops were led by UA science and outreach staff, education companies and science teachers. Participants at the symposium chose three workshops to attend and received sample kits, teaching materials and CDs with lesson ideas and information on the topic from each workshop.

"We also put all of the resources onto a CD," Hall said, so that everyone received all the information from workshops, not just the ones they attended.

Workshop topics ranged from animals to astronomy and included titles such as: Insect Communication and the Adaptive Use of Pheromones in Ants, The Distracted Brain, Biology of Cancer, and Enzymes and Biofuels – Go From Grass to Gas!.

Critters in the Classroom

"You can teach everything through science."

So said Liz Prohaska, who teaches science to gifted second through sixth-graders at J. Robert Hendricks Elementary in Flowing Wells School District and who also led one of the workshops at the symposium. Prohaska uses her collections of insects and seashells to teach kids about science – and about writing, math, art, observation and problem solving.

One of her activities requires students to record observations of seashells on a data sheet. They learn to draw the seashells on grid paper, record detailed observations, classify the shells and create a dichotomous key like the ones scientists use to differentiate species based on their classifications.

This past year she has worked with Ming Huang, a graduate student at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the UA, to develop activities for her students. "Ming taught my students how to do scientific illustration," Prohaska said. "The purpose of that is to have them get into the habit of drawing what they see."

Another of Prohaska's classroom projects is literally as large as life. She got shark eggs from Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego and raised the sharks, which grow to about 30 inches long, in a 10-gallon aquarium in the classroom.

Shark eggs are transparent, so students could observe the prenatal shark embryo get larger and the yolk get smaller as the embryo consumed its nutrients. "They watched the development and journaled as it grew," Prohaska said.

Teachers attending Critters in the Classroom said they definitely planned on using Prohaska's ideas.

Dark Skies Rangers

Light pollution affects not only our ability to see the stars, but also safety, energy conservation, cost, health and wildlife, said Connie Walker, an associate scientist with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, who led a workshop.

"The students now are leaders of tomorrow," said Walker. "A lot of this is just ways to teach the kids to be stewards of the Earth."

The hands-on activities teach students about the different types, sources and effects of light pollution as well as ways to reduce its impact. A three-dimensional model of a street-way intersection allowed students to see how light pollution can be reduced by covering street lights and redirecting light down at the street, instead of up at the sky. Students could also calculate the energy saved by using different types of energy efficient light bulbs or by turning off unneeded lights at night.

One of the activities gives students an opportunity to measure the magnitude, or brightness, of stellar objects such as stars and planets by viewing them through holes in an index card covered with layers of ink jet transparencies. The transparencies are layered progressively so that five layers cover the first hole, while only one layer covers the last. Students learn that brighter objects have lower magnitudes, so if they can see a star through the first hole (and five layers of transparencies) then it has a magnitude of one.

The activity has ties to the GLOBE at Night program, a citizen-science campaign where every year volunteers from around the world measure the magnitude of some of the brightest stars at their location. The information is used to create annual maps of how light pollution is changing how people see the skies.

"Six out of every 10 Americans live in a place where they have never seen a dark sky," said Walker. By the year 2025, she said, "the only place to see a truly dark sky will be the national parks."

Another activity helps students to find and visualize the constellations. Glow-in-the-dark puffy paints are painted over a translucent plastic sheet to delineate the stars of a constellation, and to show the imaginary outline of the constellation surrounding the component stars. The stars are placed proportional distances to one another on the plastic, so that when students hold the sheet up to the sky, the lines will match up with the real stars. The glowing outline of the constellation helps kids to visualize and remember the constellations.

"This is great. This is giving us a lot of ideas," said Amy Gosla, a science teacher at Painted Sky Elementary, about the symposium.

New ideas for the teachers correspond to new strategies at BIO5. This year was the first time the science teacher symposium was held in the fall, as opposed to at the end of the spring semester. It was hoped that the change in timing would give teachers an opportunity to put the ideas demonstrated at the symposium into practice during the upcoming school year. This year showed the greatest enrollment yet for the science teacher symposium.

At the end of the day, teachers left with standards-based lesson plans, classroom kits from the workshops, door prizes from BIO5, a wealth of new ideas for keeping kids involved and interested in science and plans to return next year.

The 2010 Arizona Science Teacher Symposium was funded by the BIO5 Institute and by contributions from Bio-Rad; The Legend Group, James Leos Financial Services; and Rosemont Copper.