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AAAS Joins Effort to Improve
Teaching of Science, Mathematics
Angela Benjamin, a physics teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School, is hoping that her students' fascination with cars will help interest them in science and engineering.
After spending her summer vacation as a student researcher in a teacher-training program organized and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Benjamin's got a plan for making the connection between physics and driving a car.
"First I'm going to show them this video, which incorporates a series of clips using crash test dummies and restraint systems," said Benjamin, standing in front of her poster presentation at AAAS last week. "Then, after I break the class into smaller groups, I'm going to issue a design challenge. I'm going to instruct them to build a small vehicle with bumpers using computer simulation, and then illustrate the effects of velocity, stress and building materials on human survival."
Benjamin's newly-inspired approach to teaching has grown out of her mentoring relationship with principal investigator, Nahib Bedewi, PhD, a researcher with the National Crash Analysis Center at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Together they spent five weeks working on a presentation to develop reality-based physics lessons and encourage students to become engineers."
Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the summer program is called Research Experience for Teachers, or RET. AAAS is one of several academic and scientific organizations that worked on the program, which arose in response to the dearth of young professionals entering careers in science and technology. According to NASA data, for example, 50 percent of the agency's science and technology workforce is over the age of 45.
AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner spoke at the 1 August event, at which Benjamin and her colleaguesall of them teachers of either high school or junior high school studentshad a chance to show off their projects.
"Science and technology are at the core of every problem facing society, and programs like this one help us get a sense of what science means to society," said Leshner. "I can't imagine a better way of transmitting that sense than to have research experts work with teachers, and to then have them convey those experiences to their students."
Leigh Abts, Executive Director of the Center for Computer Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology at Johns Hopkins University, directed the RET program and wrote the NSF grant. He said that AAAS should get credit for providing the materials that guided the design of the teachers' projects. But he noted the difficulty of trying to provide a great deal of information in such a short time period. "The question is, how do we convert a three- to four-year apprenticeship into a five-week program? And how do we map out these goals for a K-12 classroom?"
Pairing Teachers with Scientist/Mentors
Each teacher was paired with a university researcher, who served as a mentor. In the process, each pair of researchers worked to develop new ways of teaching young students. Nineteen teachers from Washington, DC were selected to be research scholars. The others were from Maryland and Pennsylvania.
U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, (R-MD), also addressed the crowd of students, researchers and policymakers. He said he hoped that the RET program would help to recruit, "the best and the brightest mindsto inspire these students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics."
"We need a national calling, like the space program of the 60's, to spark a fire in these young people," Bartlett added.
Paul Vance, Superintendent of the District of Columbia's public school system, said he was "acutely aware" of the need to improve education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
"We live in an age dominated by technology," Vance said. "Developments continue unabated, and as educators we need to do our best to expose our children to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. To do any less would handicap their development and future."
Shirley Malcom, who heads AAAS's Directorate for Education and Human Resources, says that she had spoken to some of the D.C. public school teachers before the program started, warning them not to be intimidated by the scientists.
"I told them to remember that these are human beings, who put their pants on just like everyone elseone leg at a time," Malcom said. "And when I spoke to the scientists, I reminded them that teachers are intelligent people, who are asking for help so that they can become better at communicating scientific ideas."
Building Bridges between Schools, Research Institutions
The RET program was conceived of a bridge between the schools and the research universities, according to Esin Gulari, Assistant Director (Acting), of the NSF Directorate of Engineering.
"To connect this bridge, teachers would attract their best and brightest students to enroll in research universities," Gulari said. "One of the greatest barriers to this program is the meeting between educators and scientists. We must develop more programs to facilitate these relationships… an intellectual marriage of engineers and teachers."
Susan Sclafani, Counselor to the US Secretary of Education, US Department of Education, addressed the teachers in the audience when she spoke. "Scientists and researchers want you to become engaged," she said. "We must encourage students to take an interest in the sciences and look down that road to a career. When we look at the job opportunities of the future, we have to get students to step up to a more rigorous academic program."
8 August 2002