A Summer Well Spent: The Smithsonian Science Education Academies for Teachers

I'm sure we've all been asked, "How did you spend your summer vacation?" We usually describe the obligatory family trip, visits to the community pool with the kids or--if you're really creative and not averse to making things up--wolverine hunts in Alaska with your uncle (Napoleon Dynamite fans will understand). But how often do you get the chance to brag to your friends and colleagues that you searched for fossils over the summer by sieving through 20-million-year-old paleo-sediment deposits, or took behind-the-scenes tours of some of the most popular exhibits at the largest museum research complex in the world?

This year 63 teachers got the chance to do that and more during a hands-on professional development experience at the 2013 Smithsonian Science Education Academies for Teachers (SSEATs). Each summer, the Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) Professional Services staff members create and deliver three week-long professional development courses for teachers of science on the topics of Biodiversity, Energy and Earth History & Global Change. These courses were created to bridge the gap between formal and informal science education by combining training in science content and pedagogy with behind-the-scenes experiences at a wide variety of Smithsonian Institution units, Smithsonian affiliate partners, and world-class science research facilities throughout the Washington, DC area. Teachers took pre- and post-assessments before and after the program, and had a great time learning effective methods to better understand and teach science. On the post-assessment at the end of each Academy week, they demonstrated on average a 26% increase in science knowledge!

For the Biodiversity Academy, teachers had the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum all to themselves as they explored the butterfly exhibit, butterfly pavilion, and the insect zoo exhibit, and then went behind the scenes in the insect lab--all before the museum opened to the public.

Photo from the Biodiversity Academy by Smithsonian Science Education Center

Throughout the Energy Academy week, teachers spent time exploring energy use in the United States, energy efficiency, and alternative energy resources while conducting inquiries and visiting research facilities and museum exhibits.

Photo from the Energy Academy hosted by the Smithsonian Science Education Center

During the Earth's History & Global Change Academy, teachers engaged in hands-on inquiry as they searched for fossils by sieving through 20 million year old sediment deposits from a phosphate mine in North Carolina. Teachers who sieved through paleo-sediments found fossils such as shark and dolphin teeth, fish mouths, whale bones, and more.

Photo from the Earth's History and Global Change Academy hosted by Smithsonian Science Education Center

We also conducted a longitudinal survey to study the long-term impacts on teachers who attended our Academies from 2005 through 2011, and the results were very encouraging. This particular study indicated that:

  •  60.9% of post survey respondents felt they learned better ways to present science concepts to their students;
  •  69.6% gained the confidence to integrate new activities based on the knowledge they gained;
  •  56.5% used the resource materials (website, books, DVDs) to develop new lessons; and
  •  72.5% noticed an increase in student engagement during science class

STEM education is at the forefront of education reform in the United States and the Smithsonian Institution is taking a leadership role in this effort. Based on the continuing success and effectiveness of our professional development programs for teachers, the SSEC will be offering Academies again in the summer of 2014. The planning process has already begun and we expect to recruit approximately 75 teachers, who together have the potential to impact 40,000 students over the next five years of their teaching careers. For these dedicated educators who take the time to spend their summer vacations increasing their knowledge for the benefit of their students, the SSEC is committed to making sure their summers are very well spent.