UF's Teacher Research Update Experience Is inspiring Innovative Science Teaching Across the Country
By Joseph Kays
Carole Allore's students are building robots at Walt Disney World. In California's fertile San Joaquin Valley, Meredith Davis' students are learning about their valuable soil. And Fred Rayburn's students are raising rainbow trout in Washington.
These teachers and dozens more of their colleagues from around the country got the education, and the inspiration, for their innovative lesson plans as participants in the University of Florida's Teacher Research Update Experience, or TRUE.
Each summer, the program offers about 35 science, math and technology teachers the opportunity to spend seven weeks living at UF, catching up on the latest in scientific research and learning how to transfer that research to their classrooms. TRUE is funded by a five-year, $957,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). UF contributes faculty time, equipment and accommodations.
"The goals of the TRUE program are to equip science, math and technology teachers with knowledge about and research experience in rapidly evolving fields of science and to foster the development of skills and tools to translate this knowledge into the classroom," says Mary Jo Koroly, principal investigator for the TRUE program and director of UF's Center for Precollegiate Education and Training (CPET).
Not coincidentally, these goals dovetail nicely with the National Education Goals, particularly one on Teacher Education and Professional Development, which calls for greater access to programs for the continued improvement of teachers' professional skills and the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to instruct and prepare all American students for the next century.
"For most of the 20th century, the education system in the United States has been in some state of reform," Koroly says. "Many of these reforms have been unsuccessful, in part because they failed to empower teachers as learners and leaders, and perhaps in part because the connection between teacher and university was lost upon graduation.
"The TRUE program seeks to reconnect teachers and their students to that most valuable of assets, the university scientific community," Koroly continues.
TRUE's objectives for teachers are organized into three broad categories: teacher as learner, teacher as researcher and teacher as agent of change.
"In TRUE, teachers learn by doing," Koroly says. "Then, they are required to prepare an action plan for transferring their new knowledge to their classrooms."
Dozens of UF faculty members participate in TRUE, offering seminars on basic research techniques in such fields as biotechnology, physics, forestry and statistics and, most importantly, mentoring the teachers in their laboratories.
"It is essential that high school students are exposed to the excitement and discovery of doing science," say UF zoology Professor Lou Guillette. "We can do this only to a few students at a time, if it is a one-on-one experience. Or, we can expose some of the best high school teachers in the country to state-of-the-art research. They then take this experience and new knowledge back to their classrooms and expose hundreds of students to this adventure over many years."
The centerpiece of the TRUE program is discovery-based research, Koroly says. The teachers become integral members of research laboratories.
"This experience allows teachers to gain an appreciation for the value of research and see how scientists develop questions and design experiments to find the answer," says exercise science Professor Scotty Powers. "There is no substitute for hands-on experience. That is the value of the TRUE program."
"I have constructed a new view of science from this laboratory experience, and it has already changed the way I teach," says Belleview, Fla. middle school teacher Terrie Kielborn. "Teachers can only teach science as they have experienced and understand science."
This research experience offers reciprocal benefits to the university researchers, Koroly says.
"Teachers and university scientists come from two different career worlds, but they are highly dependent on one another," Koroly says. "The TRUE teachers help our university researchers and their graduate students communicate clearly to adult learners what they do and how and why they do it."
Guillette echoes Koroly: "It has been a pleasure to have teachers in my lab each summer as they bring new experiences and knowledge to my students and we can share ours with them."
The final TRUE goal - teacher as agent of change - is reflected in the action plans each participant is required to submit at the end of the program. Typically, the plans involved new courses, teaching units or laboratories. These new approaches utilize information and skills teachers learned in their research laboratories and often employ microscopic slides, videos and other materials provided by their faculty mentors.
An independent evaluation of the TRUE program by
J. Logan Cross, coordinator of research and evaluation for the Duval County Public Schools, found that all of the teachers implemented at least part of their action plan.
"Instructional modifications involved an increase in research and experimentation," Cross wrote in his report to NSF. "The research placed increased emphasis on solving problems, 'hands-on involvement' and 'learning by doing'.
"After participation in TRUE," Logan continued, "teachers are prepared to make constructive changes in the quality of science education in their schools. They use the knowledge and experience gained through the program to initiate instructional improvements in their classrooms, schools and communities."
The teachers selected to participate in TRUE represent an impressive cross section of America's best science, math and technology teachers. Most regularly attend summer institutes to increase their knowledge and improve their teaching skills, and many have been "Teacher of the Year" in their school district or state. They teach a combined 3,500 students a year.
The three teachers featured here are representative of the more than 100 teachers who have participated in the TRUE program over the last three years.
Carole Allore thought she would go blind after her first day building robots in UF's Machine Intelligence Laboratory (MIL) last summer.
"This is the first time in my life I've ever soldered," she wrote in her journal that night. "Teeny tiny wires!!!"
But by November, the 66-year-old Allore was helping her 11th- and 12th-grade students at the Orange County School District's Challenge Center bring their own robots to life.
The Challenge Center, a joint program of the school district and Walt Disney World, offers students an alternate school-to-work program. Their classes are located at Disney University, where they attend school for half a day, and then work in the Magic Kingdom for half a day.
With their classrooms in the shadow of the massive warehouses where Disney engineers and artisans create the entertainment giant's special brand of magic, Allore's students have a constant reminder of where technical skills could take them.
Last year, Allore's students teamed with Disney engineers in the annual FIRST Robotics Competition, a national engineering contest to design, construct and operate a robot. The competition is organized by For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, a non-profit group whose mission is to generate interest in science and engineering among young people.
"Last year I was just an observer as Disney engineers worked with the students," Allore says. "This year, I am able to introduce the students to robotics and have them build their own robots before the competition. They will know a lot more about robotics going in."
Narada Williams, one of Allore's students on the FIRST team, says having a teacher with first-hand knowledge about robots beats having one who read about them in a book.
"Some teachers say 'Read the book and follow the instructions,'" adds Lena Perez, another member of the FIRST team. "Mrs. Allore has had hands-on training, so she knows what to do and can show us."
Allore has attended many summer programs during her nearly 40 years in teaching, but she says none have included the scientific training she received at UF. She adds that her own and her students' education has continued with the help of MIL faculty and students, who have visited her classroom on several occasions.
"Every teacher should be fortunate enough to have this experience," Allore says.
Sowing And Reaping
To most of Meredith Davis' seventh- and eighth-grade students at the Stella Brockman School in Manteca, Calif., the ground they walked on was just dirt.
"My students live on some of the richest agricultural land in the world," Davis says, "yet most do not have a clear understanding of where their water comes from or how the food appears on grocery store shelves."
Raised on a farm, Davis returned to her farming roots, literally, as a TRUE participant in 1997.
She spent the summer "listening" to borer weevils eating citrus tree roots in the laboratory of Richard Mankin, a courtesy professor in the UF Department of Entomology and Nematology and a researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service in Gainesville.
Davis says her understanding of the scientific process grew immeasurably as she mastered sophisticated acoustic equipment to eavesdrop on destructive borer weevils eating tree roots.
"It was difficult to master the techniques, but it was fascinating to listen to the larvae and it gave me a new appreciation for the scientific process," Davis says.
Inspired by the novel approaches Mankin and his colleagues used to attack a problem, Davis began developing new lesson plans to introduce her students to a whole new world beneath their feet.
She took them into the fields to capture and identify insects; she taught them to build miniature ecosystems out of plastic soda bottles, then used the bottles to demonstrate the effects of pesticides on that environment; and she taught them to grow their own plants in the classroom.
"Some of them had never seen a seed sprouting before," says Davis, who now has dozens of plants thriving in her classroom. "They had no idea how plants developed."
Davis says her TRUE-generated enthusiasm has rubbed off on her colleagues, her students and their parents.
"I don't know how you measure what TRUE does for teachers, but it's an invaluable experience," Davis says. "In many subtle ways, we bring back what we learn to our kids. It helps the teacher and the students through the teacher."
Asotin, Wash., is nearly 3,000 miles from Fort McCoy, Fla., but through networks personal and electronic, Fred Rayburn's students in Washington are learning about Florida ecosystems and Mary Bahr's students in Florida are learning about Washington ecosystems.
Rayburn and Bahr met at the TRUE program and now their students are meeting over the Internet, comparing notes on weather, soil, plants and animals in their diverse environments.
"From Florida we get information on two contrasting sites, one adjacent to a cypress dome and one in an upland sandhill community," Rayburn says. "We are comparing these sites to our local area on Asotin Creek. Comparisons of this type really make students stop and think about the type of life found in their own areas. Also, when students have to describe their area to someone else, they find that their data must be well organized to be meaningful."
Rayburn was reminded of the rigors of scientific research and reporting during his TRUE stint in the laboratory of zoologist Lou Guillette, a UF Research Foundation professor and an international expert on alligator reproduction.
Rayburn spent the summer studying the reproductive biology of the gar fish, but he says the highlight of the program was joining Guillette on an airboat trip to study female alligators and their nests.
Back in Washington, his students are conducting many of the same experiments he did as they raise 275 trout eggs until they are old enough to be released into a nearby pond.
The students also are involved in environmental monitoring of Asotin Creek. They used yardsticks and tape measures to create a profile of the creek and tested the water for pH, nitrite, phosphorus and ammonia. They also are studying the structure of the creek and must construct a model of an "ideal" streambed.
Rayburn says his TRUE experience has helped him to get his students more involved in their research projects and to get them acting more like research scientists.
"Today's students are more sophisticated than earlier generations," Rayburn says. "If they can't relate to their studies, or they don't consider their studies relevant, they are turned off. By actively participating in something they find relevant, they develop ownership. Their environmental studies suddenly become important to them as more than just a grade."
Building On TRUE
Based on the success of the TRUE program, Koroly is pursuing development of a similar program, called "The-Best" for Theme-based Enhancement of Science Teaching. Each summer for four years, about two dozen "Master Teachers" would come to UF for five weeks of scientific training in one of four interdisciplinary topics: neuroscience, toxicology and environmental health, food and resource science, and biomedical science.
"The goal of the Theme-Based Science program is to help science teachers develop similar modules of scientific curricula that can be imported to their home schools," Koroly says.
TRUE and other CPET-administered programs have been so well received by UF faculty that principal investigators on several major federally funded or proposed research projects have offered to fund TRUE-like programs as a way of meeting the outreach requirements of their grants.
Koroly is part of a multidisciplinary team led by Dr. Marc Heft in the UF College of Dentistry, which has an $8.1 million grant pending before the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop a center devoted to pain research.
And Margaret James, professor of medicinal chemistry, has endorsed a summer environmental health and toxicology research institute for high school science teachers that would help to fulfill the community outreach component of a $2.6 million NIH grant she leads to study chlorinated organic compounds.
Perhaps Kielborn, the sixth-grade teacher from Belleview, Fla., summed up TRUE's impact best when she said: "My TRUE experience was an infectious prelude to a year of scientific inquiry and discovery for my students. I have constructed a new view of science, and it has already changed the way I teach. I am no longer satisfied with cookbook-style laboratories. I want my students to venture into the unknown, to make their own choices, implement strategies and engage their imaginations through the scientific process. Today, my classroom is one in which my students are making the same transition I made, from student to scientist."
Mary Jo Koroly
Director, Center for Precollegiate Education and Training
(352) 392-2310, email@example.com
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