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College to Establish Partnerships in Elementary Science Education in Local School Districts

College to Establish Partnerships in Elementary Science Education in Local School Districts
Hands on ScienceHow do we train future elementary teachers in science and simultaneously give them the tools they need to engage children in the exciting process of scientific discovery? That's the challenge being undertaken by the Hands-On-Science team in the College of Natural Sciences.

The Hands-On-Science curriculum trains future elementary teachers in science content through the process of inquiry, and engages them early in the process of translating that training into teaching children. The program has been built on the experience gained in the college's UTeach program for secondary teacher preparation in the sciences.

“Elementary education majors take four semesters of science from our college. With topics ranging from biology to physics to chemistry to geology to astronomy, we had to build an integrated curriculum that conveys the 'big ideas' in the sciences," says Dr. Peter English, who teaches and wrote curriculum for the Hands-On-Science program. “We designed a curriculum that pulls in all these subjects under the broader theme of the flow of matter and energy through the sciences.”

The four-semester course now enrolls 400 students a semester from the College of Education.

As indicated by its name, the Hands-On-Science program teaches science through guided inquiry. No longer will the instructor dispense knowledge and then challenge students to assimilate that knowledge. Instead, the instructor will set up a problem and gently, judiciously, guide students down the path to solving it on their own.

"We have a number of faculty who are gifted in this form of instruction," says Dr. Sacha Kopp, associate dean in the College of Natural Sciences. “It’s a new way of teaching. It's about putting students in charge of their own learning, and about faculty learning how to be a cheerleader while students tackle problems. As faculty, we must make it safe for kids to risks."

Dr. Ruth Franks, director of the college's Center for Inquiry in Math and Science, which oversees the Hands-On-Science program, says: "The idea, in part, is to support faculty in each discipline who are experts in teaching this way, and to have them as a resource for others who are interested in experimenting. Institutionally, we believe in doing experimental science, and these inquiry-based classes are very good experiments to be doing.”

Hands-on instruction is the same model that the program's leaders hope teachers will use in their own classrooms.

"Rather than beginning a lesson by providing information to students about, say, photosynthesis," says English, "the Hands-On-Science teacher might begin by asking: How does a seed like this one, that you’re holding in your hand, become the firelog that’s sitting on the table in front of you? Where does the extra mass come from?

"The students offer some possible answers—the extra mass comes from water, sun, dirt or air—and if the problem is well designed, most of the students will begin the process of inquiry with the wrong hypothesis (that it comes from the dirt).

"Over the course of conducting a series of experiments, however, they’ll come to see that only one answer makes sense. It’s the carbon dioxide in the air, which is photosynthetically converted into sugars, that contributes most of the extra mass. And because students have discovered that answer themselves, through experimentation and in context, it should stay with them."

Dr. Antonia Chimonidou, another Hands-On-Science instructor and curriculum author says, "For us as teachers, it's knowing what not to say, or knowing to say it in two weeks rather than right now.”

Building on the idea that one learns best by teaching a subject one's self, the Hands-On-Science students teach day-long science camps for roughly 2000 local elementary school students each semester.

The science camps serve as field trip opportunities for schools in the Austin area. For the future elementary school teachers in the Hands-On-Science program, the science camps are serve as a means to marry learning science with their first love, teaching children. By turning around and teaching elementary school children what they themselves just learned, future elementary teachers apply directly and strengthen the knowledge they build up in their science courses.

Such early field experience has been found to be a valuable part of a teacher's training in the UTeach secondary teacher preparation program, and now is being applied to elementary education. The program works closely with the UTeach Outreach program, led by Mary Miller, to who brings elementary school tours on campus and organizes teams of College of Natural Sciences and Elementary Ed students to teach them.

The Hands-On-Science program is also working in partnership with the Texas Regional Collaboratives (TRC), headquartered in the university's College of Education and led by Professors James Barufaldi and Kamil Jbelly, to offer professional development education for teachers in the Austin area. The faculty have offered trainings for in-service teachers and other professional development providers. Beginning this fall, the program will be doing two years of immersive training of elementary school teachers in the school districts of Del Valle, Manor, Hays, Wimberly and San Marcos.

"The Hands-On-Science curriculum reinforces teachers' content knowledge in the sciences, and gives them the confidence to deliver that content in the schools," says Dr. Carol Fletcher, assistant director of the TRC. "We are looking forward to seeing what impact this curriculum can have on the participating schools with which the program will be engaged."

In the course of the forthcoming partnership with the TRC and school districts, data will be collected to learn whether teachers learning better, if the students of the teachers who are getting trained are learning better, which lessons are working best, and which teachers are improving the most.

The hope, ultimately, is that science instruction in the elementary schools of Texas will improve.
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Saturday, 04 February 2023

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