Virginia Marine Resource Bulletin
Volume 42, Number 2, Summer 2010
By Janet Krenn
What does underwater mud eight time zones away have to do with a middle school English class in Virginia?
As a graduate student at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), Lila Rose studies sediment off the coast of New Zealand. But as a fellow in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Graduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Fellows in K-12 Education Program (GK-12), she finds ways to use her scientific expertise to enrich middle school students’ learning experience.
“It’s hard for me to incorporate a lot of my own research into the classroom,” says Rose. Rose spent the 2009–2010 academic year partner-teaching in Kimberly Denmark’s seventh grade English class at Booker T. Washington Middle School, a marine science magnet school in Newport News. But when it came time for students to read Esparanza Rising, a novel about a young girl’s journeys through North America, Rose found that she could introduce a bit of science by teaching students how to use a mapping tool to study literature. “I thought it would be really cool to show them how to use Google Earth to plot the main character’s journey,” Rose said, “and then ‘travel’ and make a literature trip.”
The literature trip enabled the class to go on a virtual journey to learn about real places in the story while simultaneously expanding the way students think about science.
Changing the ways that students think about science is just one of the goals of the GK-12 Program. The program provides funding for graduate students studying math or science to teach in kindergarten through high school classes while pursuing their graduate education. It is intended to help budding scientists improve their communication skills and benefit local schools by providing professional development for teachers, enriched curriculum for students, and stronger connections between universities and local school districts.
The VIMS version of the GK-12 Fellowship is the PERFECT Program (Partnership between Educators and Researchers For Enhancing Classroom Teaching), a proposed 5-year effort that started in 2009. It’s the only GK-12 project in the Chesapeake region focusing on marine science. And after just one year, PERFECT is already accomplishing many of the GK-12 goals.
Teaching students in grades K-12 requires patience and the ability to translate complicated topics into terms that students can grasp. Yet the PERFECT Fellows discovered that their first challenge was simply getting up in front of the kids that first day.
“I was so nervous. I thought I was going to make a fool of myself,” Rose says. Her sentiment was reflected by other fellows, too. “I was completely overwhelmed,” says Dan Dutton of his first experience as a PERFECT Fellow. Dutton, a masters student studying marlin, taught biology and chemistry to gifted high school students at the Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School in Glenns. He saw the PERFECT Program as an opportunity to test his interest in teaching, but he got a shock during that initial experience, a weekend camping orientation that included students from all three Governor’s Schools. “I hadn’t been around high school kids for a long time, and here I’m faced with three campuses-worth of them—100 and some kids.”
Like Dutton, other fellows cited interest in teaching as their main motivation for pursuing the fellowship. Creating opportunities for VIMS students to gain teaching experience was an important concern for Kam Tang, the VIMS Biological Sciences professor who led the charge to bring a GK-12 Program to the Institute.
At other colleges and universities, graduate students gain teaching experience by assisting professors with undergraduate courses. VIMS, however, hosts very few undergraduate students, making teaching opportunities hard to come by. Tang says the GK-12 Program “gives the graduate students at VIMS the teaching experience that they need to be competitive in the future job market” as university professors.
By the end of their teaching experience, fellows feel at ease in the classroom. As Rose says, “I no longer worry about making a fool of myself in front of kids.” Dutton, who hadn’t taught before becoming a PERFECT Fellow, found that with preparation, his teaching anxiety turned into excitement. He challenged himself to develop methods to engage students, especially those who seemed uninterested, and he was encouraged by students’ creativity. For example, after his lecture on cave biology, Dutton asked the students to use what they had learned to design their own cave animal. The students shared their animals with the class.
“One student took creativity to a whole new level,” Dutton remembers. “[His animal] had this amazingly intricate Latin name. It was invincible, and it had all these crazy breeding strategies and fighting and hiding abilities… . I was really excited about how well that lesson turned out, and it pumped me up for future lessons, too.”
The teacher-partners say that the fellows, once they get past the discomfort of public speaking and learn to aim their lessons at the right level, make great contributions to the classroom.
“[Our fellows] kicked the curriculum up a bit,” says Sara Beam, who teaches at the Governor’s School and has worked with fellows David Elliot, Noelle Relles, and Dutton. “Because they’re experts in their field and they’ve been able to add depth to those topic areas… . I think it’s added just a lot of richness to what we already do.”
Denmark, Rose’s teacher-partner, agrees that the fellows were a very helpful resource in the classroom. “[Rose], of course, knows her science very well… . She’s really been invaluable as far as making the content more challenging for students.” The students also enjoy having fellows as part of their class.
“The students ask me all the time, ‘Is Miss Rose coming today? Is Miss Rose coming?’” says Denmark.
Beam says that at the end of the year, students did something remarkable. Each student had to present their own research project to the class, and after their presentations, “They each thanked the fellows for helping them in their acknowledge-ments, which was totally of their own accord! There definitely had to be an impact there.”
Many scientists struggle to explain their work in a clear, engaging manner. The terminology alone sometimes is like a foreign language. Giving graduate students the skills to translate science into language the general public can understand is one of the goals of the GK-12 Program.
“That’s really hard for all of us,” says Iris Anderson, VIMS Dean of Graduate Students, who worked with Tang to apply for the funding to start the PERFECT Program. “If you’ve ever been asked what you do by mom or grandma, you know how difficult it is to explain to them in simple terms what you’re doing and why it’s important… Scientists aren’t taught to do that.”
PERFECT Fellows are, however, trained in communication before they enter the classroom. Vicki Clark and Carol Hopper Brill are educators with VIMS and Virginia Sea Grant who serve as the PERFECT Program’s project managers. They act as mentors throughout the fellowship and teach the fellows’ course in science teaching and communication. Clark says this course helps fellows think about science from a nonscientist’s point-of-view. “What the GK-12 Program does,” she explains, “is challenge the scientists to look at their science and then consider the methods of good teachers and good communicators who can communicate any kind of information.”
And the PERFECT Program seems to be making a big difference in fellows’ communication skills. Both Rose and Dutton believe that they’ve become more comfortable in communicating science and in public speaking. “I think—I hope—that I’m a better communicator,” Rose says. As the only PERFECT Fellow teaching in an English classroom, she finds that moving science out of the laboratory has been a great experience: “I think some people are amazed, ‘How can you integrate science and English?’” But she argues that the skills students learn in an English class are the same ones that make a good scientist. “So bringing them together was easy.”
Fellows’ research advisors at VIMS have also seen signs of improved communication. John Graves, Dutton’s research advisor, says he’s seen a big change in Dutton’s communication abilities. Graves remembers a presentation Dutton gave before his PERFECT Fellowship started.
“He did a good job, but he wasn’t comfortable as a presenter. It was very clear to me,” says Graves. But after Dutton completed the PERFECT Fellowship, Graves observed, “What a change a year has made… . His presentation style, his demeanor, he was just at ease in front of the audience, and it was just like night and day. I couldn’t believe it!”
As one of the project managers for the PERFECT Program, Hopper Brill receives similar feedback about the students’ progress. She says, “Their sense of confidence and poise and their persona is more collected—and some of those comments came from their major advisors.”
With all the benefits of the PERFECT Fellowship comes a big challenge: time management. Fellows face many of the same challenges that confront first-year teachers.
“The first year is always the hardest because you haven’t got anything in your trick bag yet. You’re starting from scratch… .” Clark observes. “When [the fellows] started, they thought, ‘Ten hours a week in the classroom. I think I can do that.’ But then, that first month, I was hearing ‘It took me 20 hours to get ready!’”
Now combine this commitment with the responsibilities of a graduate-level researcher, and you can see why PERFECT Fellows find that time is officially not on their side. This affects not only the fellows but their research advisors as well.
“As an advisor, I realize that if a student is going to participate in this program, that’s pretty much what they’re going to do,” says Graves. “I think, realistically, they’re losing two-thirds to three-fourths of a year’s worth of research by doing it.”
NSF requires fellows to spend an average of 15 hours per week on teaching and preparation, but Tang notes that many opt to spend more than the required time. To ensure that fellows’ research is not stalled by their participation in the PERFECT program, applicants must have completed their core courses and have their research well underway. So far, this strategy seems to be working. “Among the first cohort of nine fellows, four graduated in 2009, on schedule, and the others are also well on track toward graduation,” said Tang.
Both Dutton and Rose agreed that the PERFECT Fellowship required a larger time commitment than they initially had expected. But looking back, both said the extra time was worth the benefits of the program.
This fall, Rose will be finishing her PhD dissertation. Dutton will have graduated and will enter the workforce—as a high school science teacher at the Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School—while he pursues a teaching certificate. Meanwhile, a new class of PERFECT Fellows has spent the summer preparing for the program, and the eight fellows will enter local middle and high schools this fall.
“The first year went better than we expected,” says Tang. “We have some experienced fellows in the second-year group, and we are also more experienced than we were in the first year. So I think, overall, there’s a lot to look forward to in year two.”
Some considered teaching as a career…
Christian Hauser applied for the PERFECT Fellowship because he thought he might be interested in teaching as a career. By the end of the Fellowship, he decided that teaching was not going to be his future career path, but he says he has improved his communication skills, particularly in conveying scientific information to less technical audiences. Hauser studies restoration ecology under advisor Jim Perry. He taught in Judith Gwartney-Green’s life science class at Page Middle School in Gloucester.
Patrick McGrath’s goals for his PERFECT Fellowship were to hone his teaching skills and see whether he enjoyed teaching at the precollege level. Through his experience, he learned classroom management skills. He says that he now feels more confident and comfortable in front of a group and adds that he would like to continue teaching, but at the collegiate level. McGrath studies the life history of longnose gar under advisor Eric Hilton. He taught in Sherry Rollins’s life science class at Page Middle School in Gloucester.
Some wanted to improve their communication skills…
Noelle Relles applied for the PERFECT Fellowship because she wanted to more effectively communicate her research while getting more involved with the community. During the fellowship, she learned how to better structure her talks and improve her use of visuals. She believes her new skills will help her as she moves forward in the sciences. Relles studies coral reefs under advisor Mark Patterson. She taught in James Beam’s fundamentals of science class at the Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School in Glenns.
David Elliot wanted to develop teaching and communication skills that could help him foster a positive public attitude toward science. Through the PERFECT Fellowship, he learned to back away from the details that usually engross him in his research and focus on the basic science that students need to understand. Elliot believes his newfound communication skills will be an asset as he continues to pursue a career in science. This spring, Elliot received his PhD in estuarine zooplankton ecology under advisor Kam Tang. He taught in Sara Beam’s marine environment class at Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School in Glenns.
Heidi Geisz applied for the PERFECT Fellowship because she realized that members of the public might not understand science well, and she wanted to help increase their understanding by improving her communication skills. During the fellowship, Geisz found that a balance of examples, experiments, lecture, and interaction was more effective than the traditional PowerPoint presentation. She believes the Fellowship will help her as she moves forward to pursue a career along the interface of science and public policy. Geisz studies pollutants under advisor Rebecca Dickhut. She taught in Amber LaMonte’s biology and environmental science classes at York High School in Yorktown.
Some missed working with young people…
Erica Holloman developed and taught hands-on science programs for youth and adults during her pre-VIMS days working at a small nonprofit agency. She applied for the PERFECT Fellowship to get another opportunity to interact with kids. Holloman finds that her science communication skills have improved, and she’s reaffirmed her interest in working with students. She hopes to apply her new skills to develop after school science programs. Holloman studies environmental risk assessment and environmental justice under advisor Mike Newman. She taught in Tim Jones’s life science class at Booker T. Washington Middle School in Newport News.
Lindsey Kraatz was a GK-12 Fellow while conducting her masters research at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and she enjoyed it so much that she applied for the PERFECT Fellowship when she came to VIMS. Kraatz was surprised by the technological resources teachers and students have in their classrooms, and she learned how to use visual tools, such as YouTube, to augment her communication and teaching. As she continues to pursue a career in science, Kraatz believes the communication skills she’s learned will help her discuss her work with members of the public. Kraatz studies sedimentology under advisor Carl Friedrichs. She taught in Kristin Lynn Kelly’s earth science class at York High School in Yorktown.