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Oregon Teacher Michael Lampert Wins AAAS Leadership in Science Education Prize

Michael Lampert was nearly done with a doctorate in atomic physics at Oregon State University when he realized a life of research wasn’t for him. Encouraged by positive experiences doing science outreach in schools, Lampert decided to become a high school science teacher. He got a master’s degree in education, made the switch to teaching and, after some early set-backs, has become a creative, innovative and enthusiastic teacher.

Those qualities have earned Lampert the 2009 AAAS Leadership in Science Education Prize for High School Teachers. One initiative in particular impressed the award judges: Realizing that a great way to learn is to teach and that one-on-one interactions are vital to learning, he had his high school science students go to elementary schools and teach science to second-graders. The science lessons, based on state standards for science education, focused on hands-on activities and small group discussions.

Michael Lampert
Image © Benjamin Lampert

For Lampert, teaching science has not always been rewarding. In fact, when he first started teaching high school science 20 years ago, he was surprised to find that he struggled with it.

“I just felt like it wasn’t working,” he said of his initial foray into high school science teaching.

He felt disappointed that he wasn’t using his science and mathematics knowledge. “I had to learn that high school teaching isn’t about the knowledge base,” Lampert said. “It’s about personal relationships that you develop with these kids and how you want to develop their own interests.”

He returned to his doctoral work, but then after a couple of years he reconsidered teaching as a career. As he started teaching in the West Salem High School, in Salem, Oregon, Lampert told himself: “If you go back into high school teaching, from this day forward, you are going to do the very best job you can.”

That promise to himself—made 20 years ago—has resulted in a quarter of million dollars of grant money to fund his classroom activities, trips with researchers to Antarctica and Africa, consulting jobs for PBS and the Walt Disney Company, and a presidential handshake upon receiving the 2008-2009 Oregon Teacher of the Year award. Looking back now, Lampert said: “I really feel like I have done the very best job I can.”

The AAAS Leadership in Science Education Prize for High School Science Teachers includes travel expenses to give a presentation at the annual Shanghai International Forum on Science Literacy of Pre-college Students. The trip to Shanghai and the opportunity to meet Chinese science teachers are what attracted Lampert to apply for the AAAS award, which was created by AAAS member Edith Neimark and is in its third year. He’s eager to talk to Chinese teachers about education. And he’s hopeful that his trip will generate a collaboration with a science teacher in China.

Even if Lampert doesn’t tell you straight-out, you can tell he’s a happy person. Lampert, 50, is a father of three. He lives two miles from the West Salem High School—attended by about 1600 students—and rides his bike to work. He teaches physics, microelectronics, and astronomy. He’s proud to have his own helium tank and a student-built Tesla coil in his classroom. He coaches the award-winning robotics team. He gushes about the beauty of Oregon’s rainbows and animatedly describes the science behind double, triple and even quadruple rainbows. He can juggle, too.

“I’m just happy. I’m happy for my choice to return to teaching,” Lampert said. He tries to share his career fulfillment with new teachers. Not wanting early career science teachers to be overwhelmed and leave the field, Lampert tells them that “in the long term, things will work” and he describes the opportunities he’s had as a science teacher.

Lampert’s most transformative opportunities came when he first returned to the high school classroom. He started to write grants to the National Science Teachers Association—and the grant funds changed everything. “What was amazing is that it provided a seed of excitement in my classroom,” Lampert said of the grants. He used the money to increase classroom activities to include slow motion photography of airbags exploding, studying the physics of sports by digitizing video of students at play, and building Lego cars with solar cells on them.

Then he started a project which ultimately garnered him the AAAS Leadership in Science Education Prize. Realizing that a great way to learn is to teach and that one-on-one interactions are vital to learning, he had his high school science students go to elementary schools and teach science to second-graders. “Elementary teachers love improving their science lessons with the new ideas that high school students bring into the classroom,” Lampert said.

Marlene Hilkowitz, a Philadelphia-based science education consultant and a former high school biology teacher, said that Lampert’s concept of high school students teaching children is “wonderful.” For students to communicate physics to someone else, they have to avoid jargon and terminology, said Hilkowitz, one of four judges on the AAAS prize committee. “If you don’t understand it in the first place, you won’t be able to explain it,” she said. “They’re explaining it at a concepts level, not at a facts level. That’s the essence of good teaching.”

Another strength of Lampert’s program, known as Project PIPE (Partners in Physics Education), is that his lessons are aligned with state standards for teaching science, Hilkowitz said. Standards-based teaching allows knowledge of a particular subject to accumulate from elementary school through high school. Mathematics and science taught in a comprehensive, coherent manner aligned with standards provides a foundation for what students should know, Hilkowitz said.

When “students do not have science in elementary and middle school in an effective way, then the deficits become multiplied when they get to high school,” she said. Having high school physics students teach elementary school children is “one initiative in wiping out those gaps,” she said.

Lampert, who teaches ninth- through 12th-grade science, agreed that the continuity between grade levels can be a problem. He said that the problem can continue up to the college level, where sometimes science professors don’t pay enough attention to what’s being taught in high school because they figure it’s best to start from scratch in their entry-level science courses.

“That’s the wrong attitude. It gets really boring for kids and drags down the curriculum,” Lampert said. Lack of communication among educators at different levels is a problem, he added. “That transition is a glaring error in our science education. What we have is a disjointed curriculum.”

After the grant money energized Lampert’s classroom activities and created opportunities for his high school students to teach in elementary schools, he said “a really cool thing” happened: His high school students started entering science competitions. Then they started winning the competitions, both locally and nationally. Lampert took his students to Washington, D.C., Arizona, and Alaska to compete.

What’s more, the awards from science competitions and the experience teaching science to elementary schoolchildren give Lampert’s high school students substance for their college applications. Lampert stressed the importance of giving high school kids opportunities, such as by creating “best science student” and “best mathematics student” awards.

The AAAS Leadership in Science Education Prize recognizes the role high school science teachers play in improving science education, said Ted Willard, one of the prize’s judges and a project director in AAAS’s science literacy effort Project2061. “Improving science education has many different aspects and many different interacting systems,” said Willard, listing political, curriculum, economic factors as having roles. “And then there’s the aspect of teaching, and this prize is intended to honor the role that good science teaching has in reforming science education.”

By having his high school students teach physics to elementary schoolchildren, Lampert is putting into practice “how science learning builds over time,” Willard said. “He’s thinking about how knowledge builds on itself and feeds together, and he’s preparing his future students, who are currently in elementary school.”