Morris Aizenman and Gary Temple discuss their experiences as scientist-volunteers. [Credit: AAAS/Carla Schaffer]
As a senior scientist at the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Morris Aizenman was used to dealing with the complexities of astronomy, astrophysics and earth sciences. His office funded research aimed at making fundamental discoveries about the universe and the scientific laws that govern it.
But some of the most challenging questions he gets these days come from curious seven-year-olds. Aizenman has been volunteering his services at Taylor Elementary School in Arlington, Va., as part of a AAAS-sponsored program to put retired and working science professionals into classrooms to help teachers and to interest students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Besides helping with labs and other classroom activities, Aizenman is available to students for one-on-one tutoring. “This is the most fun of all,” he said at the 30 May annual meeting of the Senior Scientists and Engineers (SSE) STEM Volunteer Program. “I have no idea what question they are going to ask, and when they sit down they want and expect an answer.” One seven-year-old asked him “What is space?”
“I was floored,” said Aizenman, whose training is in astrophysics. “It’s an extraordinarily deep question that takes a lot of understanding.” Another seven-year-old asked him, “How does a black hole evaporate?”
“Your understanding of a subject can really be tested by your ability to answer the question of a seven-year-old or an eight-year-old,” Aizenman said. “Then you really begin to question your own understanding of a subject.” He added that he was “having a ball” fielding such questions.
The AAAS/SSE STEM Volunteer program, started in 2005 under the auspices of the AAAS Education and Human Resources (EHR) office, now has more than 65 volunteers in three Washington D.C.-area school districts. A similar program was started recently in Seattle, according to Shirley Malcom, head of EHR, and efforts are underway to launch programs in other cities. The scientist-volunteers give students and teachers alike the benefit of their hands-on expertise. They also provide busy teachers the help that allows them to often spend more time working one-on-one with students.
Dr. Gary Temple, who recently retired as a program director at the National Human Genome Research Institute, spoke enthusiastically of his volunteer work at Earle B. Wood Middle School in Rockville, Md. Whether helping students dissect frogs, extract DNA from strawberries, monitor the growth of chick embryos, or devise experiments on the impact of pollutants on tiny freshwater crustaceans called Daphnia, Temple said he has been getting “a lot of satisfaction” as a classroom volunteer. His goal is to get children excited about science, he said, even if they don’t necessarily want to become scientists. It is important for them “just to see it as really relevant, in lots of ways, to their lives,” he said.
Temple noted his “good fortune to work with some really terrific teachers,” and said he has come to appreciate how challenging if is to manage six classes a day with 25 or 30 children in each. He has received late-night emails from teachers still at work on the next day’s lesson.
“The teachers are wonderful,” agreed George Kralovec, an independent specialist on sustainability practices and a volunteer at Bull Run Elementary School in Centreville, Va. “They are absolutely inspiring.” He said it is discouraging to note that classroom teachers must constantly be aware of the need for their students to meet the state’s Standards of Learning (SOLs), as demonstrated by scores on standardized tests for English, mathematics, history and other subjects as well as science. “The SOLs are just sucking up all of their time,” Kralovec said.
Aizenman also mentioned the learning standards, which he called “an ogre standing over” the teachers with whom he works and whom he considers to be “immensely over-worked.” The teachers “need to be in six places at once,” he said. “They’ve got to violate the laws of physics.”
Malcom of AAAS said the volunteers’ unprompted comments on the learning standards point to some real issues about the uses of standardized tests, including “the question about whether or not the assessment is driving out the instruction.”
“You, of all people, know how important it is that these young people develop certain habits of mind and skills and ways of thinking about science and mathematics,” Malcom told the scientist-volunteers. She urged them “to become more vocal” when they see testing pressures which may be robbing students of valuable instructional time.
One way to provide teachers more time and flexibility with their students was discussed during the SEE meeting by a panel of experienced science teachers. They reviewed the merits of an instructional approach called the “flipped classroom” that reverses the traditional model: Students watch video lectures at home and do follow-up activities (“homework”) at school, where they can move at their own pace with more time for tutoring by the teacher.
“You flip time and space,” said Cheri Faley, a chemistry teacher at Heritage High School in Leesburg, Va. “Home is school, and school is home.” She said the flipped classroom gives teachers more control over the material since they can record their own lectures for viewing by the students at home. Back in the classroom, she said, the students become more engaged with activities based on the lessons they’ve already viewed at home.
“The kids can’t hide,” said Faley, who has been using the flipped approach for more than a decade. “This really makes kids work together. They talk about things, they use all the skills and all those higher-level learning methods that we want them to use.” The approach also frees up the teacher “to walk around the room and answer questions,” she said. “It creates more time for active learning.”
Maggie Wiseman, a chemistry teacher for the H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program in Arlington, Va., said her role in the classroom has “completely changed” under the flipped classroom model, which she adopted last fall for the first time. Rather than structuring a classroom lecture each day, she now is able to focus on the needs of individual students as they learn at differing paces. “They get so much more personalized attention,” she said. She can give a student an assessment only when she feels the student is ready for it. “Kids may be taking tests on all kinds of different days,” she said, depending on their progress through the material.
The flipped classroom relies heavily on technology, and there have been concerns about making sure every student has the resources at home to view videos, whether via a DVD or a link posted to the Internet. For students without access to such technology at home, the videos can be made available to students at school during homeroom periods or after school, Wiseman and Faley said. Malcom also noted the increasing availability of smart phones with Internet access, even in low-income neighborhoods.
Kristin Koch, a seventh grade math teacher at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Va., is just beginning to do flipping. She produced her first videos last fall as supplementary material aimed at benchmarks the students need to learn for tests. More recently, she has been using videos for home-viewing by advanced students who are taking eighth-grade math in seventh grade. For those students, she said, “Math class now is not me standing at the board giving a lesson. The whole time I’m walking around the room, and they are asking me questions. They already have the background.”
Koch agreed with the scientist-volunteers that Standards of Learning requirements do put time pressures on teachers. In a flipped classroom, she said, “I have found I have more time.”
While she is enthusiastic about the impact the new approach is having on her students, Koch also added: “I’m not going to stand here and say it’s the easiest thing.” It takes a lot of preparation, she said. But teachers considering the instructional model should “just take it one step at a time,” Koch said. “I’ve had a lot of success with it.”