How to Build a Lightbulb: Bringing New Light to Science Education

Two summers ago, I worked with the Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) as an intern with the Professional Services department. One of the main reasons I applied for an internship with the SSEC was to help me prepare to teach high school biology as a part of my undergraduate thesis. With only one semester of pedagogical training under my belt, I was looking forward to spending a summer with passionate and experienced scientists and educators who could help me become the best teacher possible for my students. One of my primary responsibilities for the SSEC was to help plan, coordinate, and execute the Smithsonian's Summer Science Education Academies for Teachers (SSEATs).

The SSEC offers a variety of SSEATs, but I focused mainly on Energy: Past, Present, and Future. As a college student pursuing a career in medicine but also preparing to teach science in a Washington, DC public high school, I came into the Energy Academy with a unique perspective. Because I assisted with the planning, I knew that the academy would include many hands-on activities and one-of-a-kind learning experiences in the Smithsonian museums. However, I did not realize the true value of SSEATs until I had the chance to work through some experiments and activities with the teachers. One of my most memorable experiences from the Energy Academy was when we worked with the National Museum of Natural History's Spark!Lab to try to re-invent the lightbulb. During the activity, we used different types of metal wire, a glass bulb, and a battery to see what combination and arrangement of the wires works most effectively to produce light. Some of the wires glowed brightly but very quickly burned up within the glass bulb. Other wires gave off only a dim light but lasted much longer. Although it took us a few tries, and we burned several pieces of metal, it was precisely that experience of trial-and-error work that helped me understand how an incandescent lightbulb really works.

Kristin Spitz and SSEC Program Specialist Katherine Blanchard visit Dominion Virginia Power's Possum Point Power Station during the 2013 Energy SSEAT.

When I began teaching my class of high school juniors and seniors, I thought back to the lightbulb experiment and realized that the value in activities such as these is not just that they are "hands-on" but that they are "minds-on" as well. Throughout the school year, I tried to incorporate opportunities for my students to grapple with difficult problems by the same trial-and-error method. As a novice teacher, some of the most valuable lessons I took away from the Energy Academy were not only specific activities or topics, but also how to construct lessons that were interesting and exciting as well as effective teaching tools.

Looking back, I realize what an impact working with the SSEC made on my teaching experience. The SSEATs programs, in particular, helped me to expand on my personal knowledge of specific scientific concepts while also introducing me to practical teaching methods and strategies. Not only do the teachers leave SSEATs with a week's worth of experiences and a binder full of resources to bring back to their students, but the academy itself models how inquiry-based education can be implemented in a science classroom.

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About the Author

Kristin Spitz
SSEC Professional Services Intern, summer 2013

Kristin is a rising senior at Georgetown University studying Biology of Global Health and a volunteer tutor with Georgetown’s Math and Science Outreach and Enrichment program. Kristin plans to continue focusing on education for her senior thesis, during which she will be teaching Biology in a public high school in the District of Columbia.