Teaching science made easier because of TESLA organization

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Science educators at Penn State are out to assure that those students whose careers will include teaching that tough topic exhibit a passion for it in their classroom instead of simply a passing interest.

That has become more and more doable because of an organization within the College of Education called Teaching Elementary Science Leadership Academy (TESLA) and its collaboration with the Discovery Space Children's Museum in State College.

The problem over the years is that many times the instructors who stand in front of a class and impart science instruction are as intimidated by the subject as those who sit in front of them.

Michele Crowl watches students' interest and knowledge in science grow from her position as director of Discovery Space as well as an instructor in TESLA, which provides support for involved elementary education majors to bond over a shared passion for science education.

It can be taken as a course, or students can participate in activities associated with TESLA, not necessarily for credit but for experience. Many of those students work with Crowl at Discovery Space, and she wants to see additional growth from eventual teachers.

"Elementary educators, they take literature, reading … classes across the board," Crowl said. "But science is very rarely something they choose to really try to be good at. Because they don't have to take too many classes, they don't think about it until they get to school."

The system worked for Harli Weitz, a childhood and early adolescent education major who in June completed a yearlong student teaching assignment in the college's Professional Development School program.

"I was always interested in science, but TESLA made me passionate about science education," Weitz said. "Working with a role model such as Michele, and being fortunate enough to work with and for the children at Discovery Space, has made me a more confident and well-informed science educator."

Crowl is more than happy to provide that opportunity for elementary education majors who choose to spend time at Discovery Space. "It's sort of a class/club, because they can take it every semester," she said. "I've had students who have been in it for three solid years now, every semester, so we just do different things every semester."

Education students also collaborate with engineering students who design exhibits featured in the museum but rely on the touch an elementary education major can give it to make it appealing for young and old. "They come down here and get an introduction and we talk about what makes a good exhibit and what doesn't work on our floor," Crowl said.

"They propose some ideas and we choose one that we like and then we work with them. They build it but we give them feedback throughout the semester."

That particular type of wisdom is something Weitz raved about. "Discovery Space provided me more meaningful opportunities working with children than the College of Education could alone," she said. "Although theorems and practices of education are essential to my preparation as a teacher, nothing is more beneficial than hands-on experience and Discovery Space gave me that.

"Engaging in a plethora of different events and programs at the museum gave me a range of teaching strategies and content knowledge that I wouldn't have been exposed to in traditional education classes."

Carla Zembal-Saul heads up TESLA. A professor of science education who holds the Kahn endowed professorship in STEM education, Zembal-Saul said TESLA was designed with money from the Martinson Family Foundation, and that was one of the strategic initiatives in that gift.

"What we did was identify cohorts; we did it through freshman seminar focused on science enthusiasts at the beginning … people who were going to be elementary teachers but they like science," Zembal-Saul said. "That's actually more unusual than you can imagine; usually they're scared of it or stay away from it … just uncomfortable.

Zembal-Saul said an added bonus is that students also get to see how children learn outside of schools and how they engage with family in their science learning. "It's been a really nice partnership and it didn't hurt that it was within walking distance," she said.

Crowl said once students understand basic concepts that things get easier for them. "A lot of it is, once they're hooked, it's easy," she said. "Once they understand that it's not hard, it's good experience for them, I don't have to try anymore. It's a lot about getting them engaged for that first time, giving them an experience that doesn't feel scary."

And while Discovery Space is a learning space for college students, its primary role is to educate wide-eyed children of all ages about the principles of science and allowing them to have fun at the same time. Floor space is maxed out with colorful displays and hands-on experiments, and free wall space is just as difficult to find for the same reason. At least one new exhibit replaces an existing one on the museum floor each month, Crowl said.

"We have more exhibits than fit in our space, so some of them we share with libraries and other community organizations; there's a big rotating path that many of them take," Crowl said. "They (exhibits) come in and go out, and if you haven't been here in a few months, they are brand new to kids. Even if you come regularly, it's exciting again."

The museum had about 16,000 visitors in 2016, Crowl said, and has nearly 800 family memberships. Visitors will frequent a new site beginning in September when the museum will depart from the downtown State College area and head to the former Commercial Printing building near TGIFridays on North Atherton Street.

"Our membership numbers continue to increase," Crowl said. "Our birthday party weekends … there are weekends when we can't schedule any more parties. Summer camps filled up this year faster than ever. So many field trips call in and some want to bring in like 200 kids, which would never work.

"We've had to turn some away or get creative. We will work with a group on campus, either with another museum on campus or the planetarium on campus so we can split the groups into smaller ones. For all of those reasons we decided it was time to find a larger space," she said.

Weitz said she brought her fourth-grade class from Easterly Parkway Elementary School to the museum to study simple machines; her students also went on a museum scavenger hunt that she created.

"Discovery Space has provided me opportunities within the museum and outside in the community, bringing science to a plethora of children and their families, and I hope they have learned as much from me as I have from them," Weitz said.

"It was such a reaffirming moment when I was able to bridge my experience at the museum with my internship in a positive and engaging way, and I was so grateful for the opportunity."

That's the spirit for which Zembal-Saul is grateful as well. "Students are very passionate about teaching science to children," she said. "They are fearless about science teaching by the time they get to their capstone field experience.

"TESLA activities and courses have provided opportunities for them to support children's science learning in meaningful ways, and they enter schools with foundational knowledge and practices needed to hit the ground running.

"I have experienced cases in which mentor teachers who are reluctant to teach science are positively influenced in their own practice by having a TESLA student-teacher," Zembal-Saul said. 

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Last Updated August 02, 2017