Science lessons

Lab gets big bucks to train future teachers

By Bryce Benson
More stories by this author...

This article was published on 11.22.07.

Chico State students Ashleigh Maciel and Gina Terzino get physical with fifth-graders at Chico State’s Hands-on Lab. The youngsters came from Pam Wolf’s class at Wilson Elementary in Gridley. The lab just received a $439,000 to expand its efforts to excite student and teacher interest in science.

Room 206 in the Physical Sciences building at Chico State University looks like a typical laboratory. On a recent Thursday, “scientists” wearing safety goggles and white lab coats conversed with their heads down, focused on the day’s topic.

These “scientists” were actually elementary-school students, members of one class among the more than 3,000 school kids who come to this room, the Hands-on Lab, every year.

They all wore nametags that identified their lab teachers—university student interns who earn a unit for “Leadership in Science Teaching.” It’s a required class for Chico State’s more than 1,000 liberal-studies majors.

Watching over everything was Bev Marcum, identifiable by her blue shirt with a California Science Project emblem printed below the left shoulder. To her, the lab was nothing less than a good way to make American students competitive with their peers in other countries by providing engaging hands-on experience—for students and teachers alike.

The Hands-on Lab is a significant reason why the California Postsecondary Commission and the California Science Project in October awarded Marcum a four-year grant of $439,000. The money is meant for the Science Teacher Retention Initiative, which was built on work Marcum has done for more than a decade, creating support for interdisciplinary collaboration in the sciences.

“This award will allow us to connect all of the various programs in science-teacher education that, together, are part of a widespread effort to recruit and retain science teachers,” Marcum said. “And, in many ways, the various programs we have created and the curriculum changes we’ve made … have brought us to the point where we can address teacher retention.”

Marcum is a professor of biological sciences and director of the California Science Project Inland Northern Site, which is located at Chico State. She wrote the successful grant proposal for the Teacher Preparation Pathway grant from the California Science Project State Office that established the Hands-on Lab in 2002.

Often science and math majors are taught that they are “too good or too smart” to become teachers, Marcum said. This program focuses not only on teaching students who want to be teachers that teaching science can be easy and fun, but also teaching science and math majors that they’re needed in teaching.

Forty percent of science teachers and 51.5 percent of math teachers at middle schools lack a major or minor in the subject, according to an article in the October issue of Discover magazine called “Making the grade: How do you grow a bumper crop of math and science teachers?” Marcum was interviewed for the piece.

Marcum and her work at Chico State are apart of a much larger “but often uncoordinated movement to improve the current system of American science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education (often abbreviated STEM),” the article reads. The movement is growing because U.S. students know less and less about science than their global counterparts.

The movement to rethink STEM education in America does not stop at the elementary students or the undergrads teaching them in the Hands-on Lab, Marcum said. The teachers whom the mini-scientists have right now need adequate support from those in the field.

“Increasing the numbers of science teachers and retaining them in the classroom doesn’t start after young teachers are out in a school on their own,” Marcum said. “For us, it starts with the elementary kids who are coming to our Hands-on Lab and getting interested in the sciences. It continues with teacher education that gives students practice in teaching science in innovative and exciting ways, and it follows teachers into the classroom with ongoing support in teaching approaches and the establishment of professional learning communities.”

To create professional learning communities, the Science Project holds science institutes for teachers, Marcum said. For 40 hours one week in the summer, teachers become the students, doing the lab work their students will do when they take them to the Hands-on Lab. They learn how to use the material in the classroom and the different teaching techniques that work.

After attending one of these institutes and looking at the successes at the Hands-on Lab, Richard Aguilera adapted a similar program to teach science at Citrus Elementary. Aguilera, who also started the school’s garden that is now a useful teaching tool, said that when it’s his class’s day to go to Science Fridays, the students are excited and want to learn.

“Kids are feeling more exposed to science,” Aguilera said. “And what we’re seeing is that the hands-on approach works and gets them to understand the material.”

For Marcum, Citrus is an example of many success stories to come. If she can help rethink the way science is taught, not only will students and teachers in Butte County be better educated, they will also catch up with their peers around the globe.