Biosphere 2 course is 1st class, AZ STEM teachers say

March 11, 2009

By hammersmith

The program is successful because teachers themselves design and run it, Biosphere 2 educators say

Lori Stiles, University Communications
March 11, 2009

Arizona science and math teachers had high praise for a weekend short course held at Biosphere 2 called “Discovering Darwin Days: Teaching Evolution in the K-12 Classroom.”

A big part of why the short course was so effective is that teachers themselves organized and ran it, Biosphere 2 educators say.

The short-course is the first of such programs that will be offered through Biosphere 2’s newly established Arizona Center for STEM Teachers, known as ACST, which is slated to engage more than 300 teachers statewide over the next three years.

Forty-four teachers attended the workshop, held at The University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 in February, which focused on evolution, in celebration of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday.

The agenda was packed with talks by such thinkers as philosopher Daniel Dennett of Tufts University, Joanna Masel of the UA ecology and evolutionary biology department, and Matthew Kaplan of the Arizona Research Laboratories, Biotechnology Division.

In addition, workshop participants attended multiple breakout sessions on such topics as phylogenetic inference, hominid skulls, and insect diversity and adaptation.

Teachers paid nothing to participate – the program covered accommodations, meals and a small stipend.  “Being able to collaborate with other educators, and to hear from experts in cutting-edge research, was a renewing and inspiring experience,” said participant Retta Ward, science department chair at Cactus Shadows High School in Scottsdale.

“After 18 years as a teacher, and with ever-growing challenges and a shrinking budget, it is easy to become discouraged with the current state of education, particularly in Arizona,” Ward said. “I have already begun to incorporate some of the new things I learned into my classroom, and I definitely have a more positive outlook this week,” she added. “The whole event was spectacular from start to finish.”

Biosphere 2’s initial ACST effort is clearly headed in the right direction, Tucson second-grade teacher Jennifer Valentine, of Gallego Elementary School, agreed. “It was definitely one of the very best professional development experiences I’ve had in my 11 years as a teacher,” Valentine said.

ACST was created in December with a three-year, $1.5 million grant from Science Foundation Arizona to the B2 Institute at Biosphere 2, and a matching grant from the Philecology Foundation.

The grant was awarded for the B2 Institute to establish a resource and training center that will enhance the quality and retention of Arizona “STEM” teachers – Arizona teachers who teach science, technology, engineering and math.

The goal is to help teachers ensure that their teaching prepares students to succeed in the 21st century world, said Pierre Meystre, B2 Institute director and principal investigator for ACST.  “The unique aspect of ACST is that it is teacher driven,” Meystre said. “Part of this process is to treat teachers like the valued professionals that they are. That’s why stipends, room and board, and other perks will be included in all ACST programs.”

The ACST education committee consists of six veteran, master K-12 teachers from around the state led by a co-principal investigator teacher, said Matt Adamson, Biosphere 2 program coordinator for education and outreach. The committee decides how ACST programs will be structured, how they will be run, and what teacher-participants can expect to get out of them, he said.

ACST will offer teachers:

  • Intensive residential summer programs that incorporate research projects, formal lectures and curriculum development.

  • Weekend courses for building STEM education content and hands-on classroom curriculum.

  • Professional coaching, mentoring and ongoing classroom support provided by experienced, master-level math and science teachers.

  • A STEM teacher Web site and portal that offers online resources, toolkits, discussion boards and forums on best teaching practices, professional development and mentoring opportunities.

  • Opportunities to partner with educators with the UA College of Science, the B2 Institute, the Biosphere 2 Earthscience program and elsewhere in finding or developing state-of-the-art teaching resources.

“A big measure of our success will be teachers sharing what they have learned with fellow teachers back in their schools and districts,” Adamson said.

Robert Johns, a participant in the Darwin workshop and an eighth-grade teacher at Sonoran Trails Middle School in Phoenix, has done exactly that.  “I was able to share all the information with other teachers at my site,” Johns said. “I’ve also been able to send out the information on upcoming symposiums to several instructors in our district and the Phoenix valley.”