MU graduate students pair with teachers to improve science education

Thursday, June 23, 2011 | 9:09 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Columbia Public Schools' fourth- and fifth-grade teachers will adopt a National Science Foundation initiative in August to teach science in conjunction with MU graduate students. Funding cuts ended a district program in which science specialists taught related subjects to those students.

GK-12 is a fellowship program that sends graduate students into elementary school classrooms to improve their communication and teaching skills and promote science education for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Candace Galen, a biological sciences professor at MU; Anna Waldron, director of MU's Office of Science Outreach; and Peter Stiepleman, assistant superintendent of elementary education for Columbia Public Schools, stepped in with the new idea for improving science education.

MU's GK-12 project, "ShowMe Nature: From Elements to Ecosystems," will pair eight MU graduate researchers from the Interdisciplinary Plant Group and the Conservation Biology Program with district students to jump-start science education for fourth- and fifth-graders.

U.S.-based research published in the February 2011 American Society for Quality Higher Education Brief indicated that elementary school is a critical age when students either maintain an interest in science or turn away from it, a fact that holds true for girls especially.

Research from the brief also showed that particular factors motivate students to pursue an activity or career when it comes to science education. Students need to feel that the experience is authentic and relates to their real-world understanding and that they are competent in the activities they do.

One way Galen hopes to tackle these factors is by having a hands-on, exciting science experience implemented into lesson plans.

“Science isn’t something you read about in a textbook,” Galen said, “It’s very active and creative.”

Students will write their own grant proposals for science materials in their classrooms. Graduate students will find out what science projects the students would like to do and then help them write proposals for new equipment.

For example, if a student wants to have a weather station, the graduate student will ask why they want that tool, what equipment they’ll need, where a good place for the station would be and more, Galen explained. 

“Writing proposals becomes a science experience,” Galen said.

She said students will gain writing experience, work with math during designing and use creativity when competing with other classrooms for grants.

New portable video streaming technology will allow the graduate fellows to virtually transport their elementary school classes into their research labs throughout the program. Galen said this is a way to engage students in real-life scientific research and introduce them to the scientific process.

“Really, the only goal is to improve the science education transfer to fourth- and fifth-graders and to teachers,” said Jeremy Gibson, an MU graduate student in biological sciences who will be participating in the program in the fall.

Gibson said the project will also focus on turning elementary school teachers into scientists instead of just conveyors of science.

Galen said this will be an eye-opening process for teachers. They will discover with their students that science is a process and a way of investigating the natural world.

“Helping our highly qualified teachers become comfortable with teaching the science curriculum while at the same time helping graduate students learn to discuss and teach their research interests to general audiences was exactly the win-win we were looking for,” Stiepleman said.

Stiepleman and Galen both said they feel this experience will benefit all who are involved.

“The teachers are very excited," Stiepleman said. “The grant includes a stipend and opportunities to travel as well because in an effort to treat them as professionals, we want to them to experience the scientific process in the field.”

This means Columbia Public Schools teachers have the chance to travel and learn side by side with graduate students.

“You can be a scientist, too," Gibson said. "It starts with asking a question. It’s that simple."

Gibson has previous experience with science outreach for children and has a passion for teaching.

“I’m just looking forward to working with fourth- and fifth-graders again," Gibson said. "I think they’re so much fun."

Gibson said he wants students to be able to ask questions and know they can answer them by gathering evidence or conducting experiments and finding scientific answers.

Another important aspect of the experience is giving graduate students the opportunity to improve their communication skills regarding their work. Teaching and communicating complicated science concepts is especially challenging with children.

“The whole idea is to help students learn and get excited about science, and the grad students doing well means they are communicating well,” Galen said.

The project is still in its planning stage, but the people involved are excited.

“My kids have heard a lot about this project, and when I found out it would be funded, I told my family, and my daughter burst into tears," Galen said. "She was saying, ‘It’s such a cool program, and I’m going to be in sixth grade, and I can’t do it.’ So I told her she could help out whenever she wanted."

The first trial begins in the fall, and financing through a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation and a matched grant from MU will help the program continue for at least three years.

“We’re kind of the guinea pigs,” Gibson said. “I think it will be a good experience to get a handle on what teachers are looking for, what the teachers’ administration is looking for and what we’re looking for.

“This is priceless experience to have.”

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