SSEC Summer School

Some professionals may be a little bit jealous that teachers get the summer off. Well, teachers don't necessarily get the whole summer off. Laser i3 school districts in North Carolina, Texas, and New Mexico are currently undergoing summer professional development that brings the teachers back into the classroom and puts them on the other side of the desk.

Two groups of teachers participated in training in Houston, Texas, last week. The first participants were elementary and middle school teachers whose schools are currently using units from the Science and Technology Concepts (STC)TM curriculum. The sessions focused on deepening content knowledge through inquiry while strengthening pedagogy, exploring student thinking, and learning to address misconceptions in a peer-to-peer setting. For example, in grades 1 and 2, they may teach students about clouds in a unit on weather. Learning would focus on different types of clouds, some names of clouds, and what the different types look like. To increase background knowledge, the facilitators and co-facilitators introduce some higher-level content, like under what type of pressure and density conditions the clouds form and how convection in the atmosphere helps create the weather that we experience around us. The discussions on pressure and density are not designed to be taken back and taught in a first- or second-grade classroom; rather, they give the teachers a richer foundation of understanding and more of the backstory that relates to the subjects they teach.

As an observer, the process increased my understanding of certain weather-related phenomena too. It can be difficult to memorize the properties of high- and low-pressure systems. Instead, a visual picture of people standing huddled close together is a good way to model high pressure, for example, and remember that the density would be higher because the people are packed closer together and they cannot move around as easily as they would modeling a low-pressure system.

Halfway through the week, a different level of training began for the teachers from schools that are just beginning to implement STC curriculum. These teachers go through the STC curriculum guides from cover to cover with trainers and local teachers to get hands-on exposure to a unit. They perform every activity in every lesson just as though they were the students. From writing down what we initially know about earthquakes to modeling the waves with a spring and volcanic ash with cornstarch to taking an assessment, teachers leave training equipped with all of the tools they need to teach the unit and some great first-hand experience working with the materials. I can attest that it takes an awful lot of force hitting a surface to move the pen in the seismograph setup. A helpful hint from the facilitator was to hit the table with a shoe rather than our own hands, but it still took a good whack to get the pen to move a good distance from the center of the paper. This classroom training environment also allows the facilitators and the trainees to bounce ideas off one another, like the types of food that they have used to represent layers of Earth or plate shifting.

It is also possible for the experiment to go wrong, like the P wave taking longer to bounce back than the S wave or sand holding less water than it is supposed to hold. When these outcomes happen (and they did), it is good for teachers to know what factors may have produced unexpected results and encourage students to discuss the results and replicate the investigation.

As a member of the Smithsonian Science Education Center staff, I see a lot of drafts of lessons that will be part of the next edition of STC curriculum, and I must say that looking at two-dimensional photos of materials does not compare to seeing the actual materials being built and used in the classroom. Everyone gets engaged in the building process and then excited, asking "What's it going to do?" or "What's going to happen?" Attending this professional development week made the work I have been doing for the publications team leap off the page and come to life.

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About the Author

Patti Marohn

Patricia Marohn is the Managing Editor with the Curriculum and Communication division. She has a BA in Journalism from Loyola University Chicago. She worked for two major television networks, WGN and Fox, during her time in Chicago. She transitioned into publishing in Washington, DC, training as a copy editor with the American Geophysical Union, where she edited the Journal of Geophysical Research and Geophysical Research Letters. She joined the SSEC in 2013. She has developed and managed the editorial style that the SSEC uses for all of its publications, including print and online material. She also writes content for SSEC products.