Professional Development in North and South Carolina, vol. 4
The Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) launched the Smithsonian Science for North and South Carolina Classrooms program in 2019 with a U.S. Department of Education early phase Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grant. Read the previous installment in this blog series here.
Margaret Lorimer is an Education Specialist at Solutions in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education (S²TEM Centers SC) and formerly a K-8 mathematics teacher. She has attended and facilitated professional development for fifth grade teachers in South Carolina on the Smithsonian Science for the Classroom modules How Can We Provide Freshwater to Those in Need? in summer 2021 and How Can We Identify Materials Based on Their Properties? in summer 2022.
We spoke with Margaret in 2021 after virtual professional development to learn more about her experiences with the program.
SSEC: What are the benefits to students who are experiencing the Smithsonian Science for the Classroom modules taught by trained teachers?
Margaret: The kids when the modules are implemented are learning by doing. They’re digging in and they’re able to interact with the content and to do some sense making of their own so that they’re understanding the concepts better. I think that’s really the power of a system that uses these kinds of modules where the students are not just reading about the science, they’re actually interacting with it. They’re doing experiments, have their hands on it, and have their brains engaged with it. They have opportunities to question and form ideas and then decide whether or not those ideas are viable and then come back around and say, “well I don’t think that’s why this works, let’s try it this way.”
SSEC: How would you describe the differences between the introductory and intermediate 5th grade training sessions?
Margaret: The introductory sessions focused on the content of the module and it was taking a look at the 5th grade content and the science and engineering processes that were involved in teaching that content. The introductory piece was this is what kids will be doing, this is how kids do this. The intermediate PD was more about the science content knowledge for the teachers, giving them a chance to really dig into some of the science concepts themselves and build their own understanding. I really believe, and my experience has shown me this, that the deeper the teacher’s content knowledge is, the more flexible they can be in their instruction. They can work with students on their misconceptions and help them build their understanding of the content.
SSEC: How do you see Smithsonian Science for the Classroom impacting South Carolina teachers?
Margaret: The teachers are coming up with questions that they want to investigate based on the content in the modules that they’re learning. I hope that something like what happened to me happens to them where they go, “oh wow, I’ve thought this about that particular phenomenon, let me think about why it works the way that it does.” I really think that it’s hard to teach what you haven’t experienced, I don’t think it’s impossible, but I think that it’s hard and so if the teachers who have been through this training have fit it into their framework of thinking about science and how they think about science instruction then they’re going to take that in their classrooms and they’re going to give their kids the same opportunities that they had to question their thinking, interact, and learn. As it impacts the teachers, it’s going to impact the students.
In this screenshot from PD, Margaret facilitates a conversation with teachers.
SSEC: How has leading professional development on Smithsonian Science for the Classroom impacted your own practice?
Margaret: When we did the professional development with Smithsonian, the train-the-trainer pieces, all the strategies that we want teachers to use with their kids, were embedded in that PD, so we experience the strategies as learners and then we want the teachers to take those. We want the folks who experienced those strategies that were embedded in that PD to then take it and use it with their students. For example, a lot of times when you think about your own instruction in science, when you were a learner, when you were a student, you get this list of vocabulary words and you find out what all the definitions of the vocabulary words are and then you do the learning about the science that’s attached to the vocabulary words. But really, it’s better to have an experience that [the] vocabulary is embedded in and you have to use it to have the experience. Then at the back end you talk about the meanings of the words. That was embedded in the intermediate piece: that teaching strategy was introduced to them and they were encouraged to apply that to other science instruction.
SSEC: What is the impact of this for you and how do you see this potentially changing science and STEM education?
Margaret: People will not do what they have not experienced themselves. If the only science instruction they’ve ever experienced is show and tell where I do it as the teacher, we do a few things together, and then you go and do some stuff on your own for practice, if that’s all they’ve ever experienced, that’s how they’re going to teach. That makes perfect sense because we do what we’ve been taught to do, so having training like this that is based in inquiry, that is built around the science and engineering practices, if they experience it as learners, then they are much more likely to carry it into their classrooms and do it that way with their students. The strength of programs like the Smithsonian Science for the Classroom is the teacher support pieces. If I’m a K-5 teacher and I’m not real sure about my content, then I’m going stick with whatever the textbook tells me to do, but if I have a Smithsonian module and I’ve learned how to use it, then the teacher supports that are built into that make it much easier for me to take the risk to do science a little differently with my students, so that’s where the power to make change comes in.