WCSU courses seek to enrich science and math education for children
DANBURY, CONN. — More than two dozen teachers from elementary schools in the Danbury area were peering through microscopes in a Western Connecticut State University laboratory during a class earlier this year when they came face to face with the hidden world of genetics — and the infinite potential to educate children in the sciences.
WCSU Associate Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences Dr. Theodora Pinou recalled how the school teachers responded to the thrill of viewing cells under the microscope as she explained how those cells continuously replicate DNA and divide to produce identical copies of themselves.
“It was an amazing moment,” Pinou recalled. “All of a sudden, their world had become the cell — that was life! Understanding how life works at the microscopic scale was very empowering for these elementary school teachers.”
Pinou’s life sciences instruction on the theme, “Define the Limits of Your Eyes,” comprised the second in a four-part series of WCSU courses specifically designed to prepare elementary school teachers to become math and science education coaches for other faculty members at their schools. The first course in the series, taught last year by Associate Professor of Mathematics Dr. David Burns, provided a foundation in math knowledge. Professor of Chemistry Dr. Russ Selzer recently completed a third segment covering basic concepts in chemistry, and Assistant Professor of Physics, Astronomy and Meteorology Dr. Albert Owino has served as instructor during June for the final section on physics principles.
The courses are being offered as part of a three-year program in science and math education enrichment at the elementary school level, supported by a grant from the Connecticut Department of Education. Twenty-six teachers from elementary schools in the Danbury, New Milford and Newtown public school districts and the Bridgeport Diocese school system have participated in this inaugural effort to train science and math teaching coaches for elementary school faculties. Participants earn WCSU credits for each course completed and will receive a certificate in teacher coaching awarded by the Department of Education.
Selzer observed that in a technological world where so much of daily life is shaped by scientific principles and processes, “the irony is that so many people have no clue what it’s all about — we’re just the end users.” Strengthening science education beginning in the early grade levels will promote enhanced public understanding of a wide range of science-related issues, from the prospective societal benefits of scientific advances to the potential environmental risks posed by technological development, he noted. “It’s important for kids to gain perspective on these subjects and more detailed knowledge of what science is all about,” he said.
For Pinou, the promotion of expanded math and science education in first through fifth grades is essential to broaden the vocabulary and perspective of young children and prepare them to analyze subjects with greater precision.
“The importance of providing science education at the elementary school level is to develop skills in problem-solving and improve literacy,” she observed. “By showing how the vocabulary of reading is anchored in scientific terminology, you can teach students to make conversational terms more concrete, quantitative and precise.”
Pinou noted that education in the life sciences during a child’s elementary school years should address the molecular and genetic building blocks of life as well as the visible world of animals and plants. “Life sciences in the elementary schools should be about more than just lions and giraffes,” she said. “The essence of the life sciences is to be found in the small things — how they work, how they live, how they develop.”
Selzer structured his course to focus on providing the teachers with a survey of basic principles, an overview of elements and compounds, and other introductory material designed to offer a well-rounded perspective on chemistry. The course also included laboratory experiments involving observation of chemical reactions as well as density measurement to prove that a golden substance produced from a penny through “alchemy” was not real gold.
For teachers who felt that they lacked a sufficiently comprehensive or current foundation in the sciences, Selzer said, “my intention was to make chemistry more inviting to them and assure them that these subjects are not so difficult if you spend the necessary time to explore and delve into them.”
While Pinou realized that class schedules would need to be adjusted to accommodate the extensive daily commitments of working teachers, she maintained the curriculum content at a challenging level designed to provide a knowledge base equivalent to that required for teaching a high school biology course.
“You always need to put your students outside their comfort zone a bit so that they will understand what they are being taught,” she observed. “My approach was, ‘This is a graduate-level course for teachers in biology — these are experienced teachers who don’t need to be told how to transfer the knowledge to their students.’ They were well-prepared, completed the assignments, and asked good and challenging questions. It was really refreshing to teach this course, and I saw a lot of growth from beginning to end.”
One measure of that growth in scientific knowledge emerged in a comparison of the teachers’ comprehension of life sciences concepts evaluated by an independent consultant before the course began and upon its completion.
“For someone who hasn’t taken a college course in the life sciences before, you can see how it would be a challenge,” Pinou said. “But in the end, the independent assessment showed there had been 100 percent growth in the level of comprehension of the content.
“The goal in coaching other teachers at their schools in math and science instruction will be to give these teachers a sufficient base of knowledge in a given area to gain the confidence to guide a class in these subjects at the third, fourth and fifth grade levels,” she observed.
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