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March 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 6

Science Teachers, Under Construction

A yearlong plunge into constructivist teaching strengthens urban science teachers' practice.

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Teachers in urban schools in Houston, Texas, care deeply about their students and are dedicated to their profession. But many are so frustrated with the conditions they work under that teacher burnout is a constant threat.
Enter the Model Science Lab, an innovative program that helps ease frustration and bolster retention among Houston's secondary science teachers. For 14 years, the Houston Independent School District, in conjunction with Rice University's Center for Education, has operated this professional development laboratory, which has produced better student test scores, a higher retention rate for urban science educators, and strong science leadership for the district.
The Model Science Lab provides teachers with support, training, content, and a year of concentrated time to examine and modify their teaching for urban students (Harcombe, 2001). The constructivist approach to teaching, or the premise that people learn better when they actively construct knowledge rather than receive it passively, is a core feature of this program.

Program Logistics

Each year, eight middle-level (grades 5–8) and four high school science teachers leave their home schools for a yearlong residency at one of the two Houston schools that host Model Science Lab sites. Participating teachers, chosen on the basis of observation, come from urban schools with high populations of low-income students. Middle-level teachers are officially transferred for one year to Lanier Middle School, where they each teach a single class; selected high school teachers transfer temporarily to Lee High School, where they teach Integrated Physics and Chemistry to 9th graders. The high school component is called the pH Model Lab.
Selected teachers enroll in courses in science content and constructivist pedagogy held at the Model Lab sites, for which they receive graduate credit through Rice University, and take part in other activities that spur learning and reflection (see “Teacher Activities During a Year in the Model Science Lab,” p. 52). The high school teachers also attend a full-semester course on nanotechnology offered on the Rice campus. All elements of the program are geared toward helping teachers learn constructivist methods of teaching science, which emphasize active learning and exploration and a deep understanding of concepts.
The participating teachers have seldom before been given time or encouragement within their workday to examine their own ideas about science—or to lead students in doing so. The U.S. education system focuses so much on memorization, feedback, and following directions that most teachers have no model for constructivist teaching. We have found that it takes a full year of effort for teachers to experience the constructivist approach and become convinced of its helpfulness, to learn to design constructivist lessons, and to practice asking probing questions as a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.

Urban School Context

All schools involved in the Model Science Lab are urban schools whose student bodies include many students who have limited English language skills, students who are considered at risk for school failure, and students who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Helping students achieve in science is a steep challenge in these schools. In the 2002–2003 academic year, only 45 percent of 11th graders at Lee High School passed the Texas standardized exam in science, which is required for graduation. At Northside High and Eastside High, two schools whose teachers have participated in pH Model Lab, the percentages of 11th graders passing this exam in 2002–2003 were only 38 percent and 32 percent, respectively.
Darling-Hammond concluded in 1996 that the quality of teaching and content knowledge among science teachers in U.S. urban schools greatly needs strengthening. The Model Science Lab aims to improve urban teachers' knowledge of science and increase their capacity to help students connect deeply with science content.
Results indicate that a year spent at the Model Science Lab affects educators' attitudes and practices in ways that benefit urban learners. Houston students in science classes taught by graduates of the program showed greater improvement on standardized science tests than did students at the same schools taught by science teachers who did not have this training. Score improvement for such students persists even years after their teachers' stints in the teacher enhancement program (Harcombe, Knight, & Bellamy, 2003). The following profiles of two teachers who took part in the Model Science Lab show how exploration, reflection, and practice in constructivist teaching broadened their repertoires.

Profiles in Constructivism

I Can See Clearly Now

Debbie Cobb, a teacher at Northside High, has 26 years of experience in the classroom. Highly energetic, she successfully conducts classes by engaging students in activities or discussions, and she manages behavior with quips like, “José, sit down. Being handsome isn't enough. You have to be smart too to attract the girls.” Debbie pursued the pH Model Lab experience in 2003 because she was aware that her students were not learning what she taught, even when they had been paying attention and completing the assignments.
A major breakthrough for Debbie during her year of professional development at the Model Lab was the realization that many students enter a classroom with strong preconceived notions. After being introduced to research by the Private Universe Project, which shows how students often cling to private, inaccurate ideas (1994), Debbie wrote in her journal thatI have always firmly believed that . . . everything I teach students is a nugget of wisdom that they just accept and incorporate into their worldview. . . . [I needed to realize] that most students never truly believe what science teachers tell them. . . . This makes my job quite different from what it has been in the past. Now I am obliged to find out what my students think about things. I must realize that they are not blank sheets. They have ideas about everything, and they will hold on to those ideas unless I am able to confront them with convincing sense evidence.
Debbie first plumbed student ideas on the role of light in sight. Every student was instructed to draw a diagram using a light source, an apple, and an eye to explain how the eye saw the apple. Approximately half of the students drew the light hitting the apple and reflecting off toward the eye; a nearly equal number thought that “something” called sight went out from the eye in a straight line and that when light and that line of sight both hit the apple, the eye would see the apple. A third view posited that light was not necessary at all, but that if one just waited long enough, the seeing would occur.
Debbie had students with similar ideas about sight cluster together. She told each group to validate its idea in ways that would convince the other groups to agree, and to suggest evidence that would contradict alternative explanations. Defenders of the two major contending ideas argued about who was right for the next several weeks. Debbie covered the windows and every light source to provide an environment in which students could experiment to prove or disprove one of the models, answering the question, “Does seeing occur in the eye with light reflected from the object, or does seeing occur at the object where light and line of sight meet?” The students created some ingenious experiments to learn about the nature of light and the interpretation of data.
Even after Debbie explained how light receptors function in the retina, some students tenaciously refused to give up their belief in the “line of sight.” However, on the final exam, all of the students provided the answer that agreed with the science books. Undoubtedly, a few students still hold a belief in the line of sight explanation, but at least they are aware that mainstream science does not agree with them.
Debbie saw her Lee High students become more intellectually engaged and generate more challenging questions as the year went on. Students knew that their ideas would be respected if they could justify them. Debbie changed her teaching methods, both at Lee and back at Northside, to include more student input. For example, she modified a skit she had written about ions interacting with water so that students had to create their own ending in a way that was compatible with scientific knowledge. Now back at Northside, Debbie is orchestrating a schoolwide exploration of the particulate nature of matter, because she found that most students do not have any understanding of this concept beyond mere words.

Physics at the Auto Shop

Mila Bersabal, a participant in the 2002–2003 pH Model Lab, is part of a large group of teachers recruited by Houston Independent School District from the Philippines (her home country), Russia, and other countries. Mila's response to the challenge to teach constructively was to engage students in real-world situations. She decided that she could best teach the concepts from her units on force and motion, simple machines, and thermal energy by taking students to local auto mechanic shops. Each student chose one part of a car and investigated how physics was involved in that part's function.
As project director of the Model Science Lab, I accompanied a group of Mila's students on one of these visits and was amazed at their engagement and curiosity. All of the students had their heads under the hoods. The students conducted subsequent investigations on the Internet and presented oral reports about selected auto parts. As the class continued studying these units, students were able to relate each concept Mila taught to something concrete from their visit to the auto shop or from the oral reports.
When Mila returned to Eastside High School, she greatly influenced science instruction there. Each week she met with all the 9th grade Integrated Physics and Chemistry teachers and led them through a laboratory experiment they could use with their students, providing them with necessary equipment, handouts, and guidance on class management during lab activities. Many students became engaged in science inquiry for the first time.
Mila has learned to engage students more in their science learning; she uses effective questioning instead of providing all the answers and always requires students to do some application or independent thinking in response to content information she provides. In 2004, Mila taught physical sciences to Eastside's 11th grade students for two months. Only 21 percent of these students had passed the science portion of the state exam the preceding year, but after Mila's instruction, 61 percent passed.

Raising Dedication and Retention

The Model Science Lab demonstrates that when teachers have support, information, and time to integrate new ideas, they become more effective in stimulating true scientific inquiry and learning among urban students. Teachers involved in the program have said that they experienced new dedication to teaching urban students (Harcombe et al., 2003). The retention rate of Houston science teachers who have taken part in the program—with 96 percent staying in science teaching and 74 percent remaining in Houston city schools for at least 15 years—is amazing for urban educators.
Because of high teacher retention, the cost of the Model Science Lab has proven less expensive per student than most other professional development options. Other urban school districts may want to consider developing a similar yearlong residency program in science or in other disciplines. The payoff is well worth the time and effort.

Darling-Hammond, L. (1996). What matters most: Teaching for America's future. New York: National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.

Harcombe, E. S. (2001). Science teaching/science learning: Constructivist teaching in urban classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press.

Harcombe, E. S., Knight, L. B., & Bellamy, N. (2003). The Model Science Laboratory Project: Lessons learned about teacher retention. In J. Rhoton & P. Bowers (Eds.), Science teacher retention: Mentoring and renewal (pp. 133–144). Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Private Universe Project in Science. (1994). Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, 60 Garden St., Cambridge, MA 02138; Science Media Group of the Science Education Department. Consists of nine teleconferences originally aired Oct. 13, 1994–Dec. 15, 1994. Available: www.learner.org/resources/series29.html

End Notes

1 Actual names of teachers and schools are used in this article, except for Northside High and Eastside High, which are pseudonyms.

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