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Inquiry in K-12 Classrooms: Graduate Students and Teachers Team Up

AIBS Eye on Education

Cathy Lundmark

This is the fifth year of the National Science Foundation's innovative partnership program, Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education, more commonly known as the GK-12 program. When Rita Colwell launched the program in 1999, soon after becoming director of NSF, she viewed it as "a classic win-win."

Graduate students in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology can apply for one-year fellowships to work with K-12 teachers in their classrooms, helping them improve the curriculum and gain confidence in conducting open-ended explorations with students. At the same time, the fellows gain valuable classroom experience and an appreciation for teaching.

"There are 118 sites in 41 states," says Terry Woodin, NSF GK-12 program director, "and there are no typicals, in that each site responds to local resources and local needs. What works for one of the sites might not work for another. Mostly they share one important characteristic — the schools and the university and the teachers and the fellows seem to form very effective working partnerships." Woodin adds, "The program only works when it is win-win."

At Cornell University, where the GK- 12 program is called Cornell Science Inquiry Partnerships (CSIP), the situation is win-win-win. "We have three targets," explains Linda Tompkins, former high school biology teacher and now CSIP program coordinator. "We're giving students science mentors and experience with inquiry. We're mentoring teachers on how to do science.... And for fellows, we're modeling teaching indirectly; they're gaining an appreciation and understanding of inquiry."

What's more, says Nancy Trautmann, CSIP's evaluator and co-principal investigator, "the GK-12 program is building into universities the idea that effective outreach is a two-way process, with teachers viewed as collaborators rather than just recipients."

Teachers who work with CSIP say they are learning from fellows. In some cases, the fellows devise open-ended research projects for students; in others, teachers want help improving a lab that they aren't happy with. Teachers don't always feel they have time for CSIP, especially when they're required to "teach to the test," but, Tompkins says, "we convince teachers this isn't extra, but another way of doing something for greater understanding in the topic they're already teaching."

Marianne Krasny, CSIP principal investigator and a professor in Cornell's Department of Natural Resources, says, "I've been impressed by the interaction between fellows and teachers. I see a real benefit for the graduate students in discussing their teaching ideas with veteran teachers. They gain a richer teaching experience than is provided by many university teaching assistantships. And after watching the fellows guide students in research, some of the teachers have felt brave enough to try a more open-ended approach themselves."

When Linda Tompkins was teaching high school biology, her classes conducted long-term, community-based projects for which the outcome was not known — "truly authentic investigations." Her last year in the classroom, a fellow helped her students undertake a study exploring the impacts of expansion of the local landfill. At the same time, they were also preparing for a high-stakes biology test: By state mandate, students must pass the exam to graduate. "Students seemed to be capable of learning more when they were enjoying the process," Tompkins says. "Because the experience developed their critical thinking skills and deepened their understanding of the process of science, it helped prepare them for the state exam."

While some GK-12 programs focus on a single school district, teachers in Cornell's program are scattered throughout rural schools and urban Rochester. And new teachers are recruited every year. They see something exciting going on down the hall and want to get involved themselves. "Teachers tell us they are excited about the partnerships," Trautmann says. "While they are learning how to do scientific research, they also are helping fellows learn the art of teaching. Teachers also discover that although you don't always get the results you expect, in science that's not a failure. When you're doing an experiment, you get what you get and you have to learn what to do with it."

This is the nature of science. "Research can't be learned by reading about it," Tompkins says. "If a demo is a flop, [teachers] won't repeat it. But that's not how science works. Why didn't it work? It can be a teachable moment. But teachers have to overcome discomfort and learn from hands-on activity.... You have to establish an environment for inquiry, not have it taught or presented."

NSF set up the GK-12 program for science graduate students to learn about education; those who apply tend to be aiming for careers in which teaching or educational outreach is valued. "In research universities, faculty may be reluctant to see graduate students' attention being diverted by outreach," Trautmann says, "but CSIP faculty have been supportive because of the beneficial impacts they have seen in their advisees."

Krasny notes that faculty advisers have acknowledged that these fellowships are challenging and time consuming, but overall response has been very positive because the graduate students gain valuable teaching experience that may make them more competitive for faculty positions.

Cathy Lundmark (e-mail: ) is features editor for BioScience.

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