Enduring The Test of Time: A Laser Alum Reflects

Back in the early 2000s, one of television's most popular shows was Fear Factor. This show pitted contestants against each other and their fears for prizes and the glory that comes from reality show exposure. Contestants typically submitted to close encounters with God's less cuddly creatures, were challenged to eat items not typically found in restaurants or grocery stores, and were submerged in liquids of dubious origin.

So, what does Fear Factor have to do with LASER? 

Back in the late 1990s through early 2000s, I had the good fortune to be a part of the faculty for numerous Strategic Planning Institutes--some in Washington, DC, many in South Carolina, and Alabama, and Pennsylvania, and maybe in a few other places I've forgotten. Back then, the SPI was a grueling test of endurance for faculty and participants alike. The institute began on Sunday afternoon and closed on Friday afternoon. Faculty were constantly planning and adjusting sessions and discussing team plans well into the wee hours. We never quite knew what our participant teams, some of whose members were among God's less cuddly creatures, would throw at us. Yes, we often joked about SPI being Fear Factor for professional developers. But that's not really the point.

In the reality show, the combination for winning included overcoming a known fear, not being rattled by the unexpected, and outlasting other contestants by sheer will. These are the basics for winning in science education reform as well.

Overcoming a known fear: It will shock no one to read that, in general, elementary school teachers fear science. Sometimes that includes a visceral fear of insects, gastropods, amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. Oh, and electricity and chemicals and other science stuff may induce fear as well. What we learned through the SPI was the value of creating peer groups; modeling what good science instruction looks like; and the necessity of patient, on-going support for teachers as they built their capacity for science bravery. We continue to apply these lessons here in South Carolina as our on-site coaches bring disciplinary literacy strategies to middle school science and math teachers. 

Not being rattled by the unexpected: Implementing a strategic plan made by a few people who are far from home is a difficult endeavor. Something usually happens that goes against the plan, and it usually appears to be an impending disaster. A key leader may not buy in. The state may change its standards or assessment system. There are a million maybes that go unaccounted for in even the best of plans. Through the SPI we learned that one person's unexpected disaster is another's strategic opportunity. Having and being able to reach out to a robust network of experienced leaders matters. In South Carolina we continue building networks and are currently focused on community leadership through our STEM collaboratives.

Outlasting others by sheer will: There is always something more important than science, especially elementary science, which submerges the attention of school leaders. Periods where attention on science rises above all else are rare and brief, and educators must capitalize on them. In these times, leadership is easy. Steady and constant leadership matters even more in the times when most everyone's attention is elsewhere. In South Carolina we've been privileged to have a strong, statewide infrastructure of advocacy and action for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics for over 20 years of good and not so good times for science education. Many of our key leaders owe their vision, bravery, and endurance, at least in part, to the Smithsonian's LASER initiative. I am proud to be among them and to pass forward a little of what I've been learning to those who will one day carry on in my place. Learn more about our past, present, and future at http://www.s2temsc.org.

Fear not. Science education at the Smithsonian and across the nation is in good hands.

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About the Author

Tom Peters
Executive Director of South Carolina's Coalition for Mathematics and Science (SCCMS)

A longtime proponent of the LASER model, Tom is a recognized leader in STEM education and a recipient of the National Science Education Leadership Association's 2010 Outstanding Leader in Science Education award.