Unique way of teaching science benefits future science teachers

College of Education faculty convey STEM subject knowledge in an innovative fashion in an attempt to have their education students view teaching and learning differently, and content courses for prospective elementary teachers appear to be unique in comparison with those taught at other institutions.

A suite of cross-listed courses collaboratively designed between science education in the College of Education and the colleges of Science and Engineering enables professors to focus on literacy and language development through science and STEM learning opportunities and gives Penn State students a variety of hands-on experiences and learning methods.

The college's upbeat message to prospective teachers is to develop their own theories within content courses during productive participation within a supportive community of scholars. Emphasis is placed on the nature of science curriculum, assessment and instruction in early grades.

Carla Zembal-Saul, professor of science education who holds the Kahn endowed professorship in STEM education, said a comprehensive look at the college's approach to science education is one of being unmistakably unique. She said collaboration has been the cornerstone behind the content-course curriculum in science education.

A Teaching with Insects course developed well over a decade ago by the deans of the College of Education and the College of Agricultural Sciences ran for years but never became an actual named course. "But we learned a lot from that," she said.

"There may be a couple of places that try to [create courses] with just non-science majors but non-science majors preparing to be teachers … this kind of partnership is unique," she said. "It may be that the College of Education gets a grant and they can offer a content course, but a co-designed, collaboratively designed content course with science education and whatever the science area is, or engineering, is unique."

Chris Palma, senior lecturer in astronomy, is in step with that opinion as well. "I do think these co-taught content courses that model effective methods are really a unique offering of Penn State," he said. "I don't know of any other university that offers an astronomy course like ours, and so we are working on trying to disseminate our work so that others might consider a similar model."

The courses, combined with the Teaching Elementary Science Leadership Academy (TESLA), leverage the best of what is known about preparing elementary teachers to attend to children's ideas and being responsive to their learning needs in science, according to Zembal-Saul.

She said the motivation behind creating these courses was to enable students to have "a problem-based experience, real-world phenomena, real-world problems as a way of learning about it so they were engaged in scientific practices with discourse and real data, small-group discussion, scientific argumentation.

"All of those courses had that in common," she said. "We wanted them to have a rich experience, an in-depth experience that allowed them to not only engage in the discourse and practices of science and learn science concepts but also think about what the applications to education might be."

Education and engineering faculty collaborated on SCIED/ENGR 110, Introduction to Engineering for Educators, and SCIED/PHYS 114, Sounds and Light for Educators, also was created. That was followed by a three-year, $525,000 grant from the Martinson Family Foundation in 2009 that spawned the creation of Climate Science for Educators and Biotic Response to Climate Change.

Another content course is what is now known as ASTRO/SCIED 116, taught by Palma and Julia Plummer, associate professor of education, and originated from a National Science Foundation project that paired scientists and science educators.

"The courses are designed and meant to be co-taught, and that to me is one of the most important aspects of the course," Palma said. "We have what I think is a pretty ideal background in that I'm an astronomer with a strong interest in astronomy pedagogy and Julia is a science educator with great experience in astronomy pedagogy and a background in astronomy.

"My contribution is to keep the focus of our in-class investigations on modern ideas in planetary astronomy so that the students complete the class with a really strong understanding of the solar system."

Palma said students find the focus on investigations that end with them having to construct evidence-based explanations to the question quite challenging. "However, by the end of the semester, they are often more confident in this method and are more confident with their understanding of the underlying astronomy content," Palma said.

"I have seen that having the students engage in these investigations really allows them to get quite deep into the content."

Zembal-Saul said that from the Martinson Family Foundation grant – Deepening the Science Content Knowledge of K-8 Teachers – came TESLA. "The basic idea was that TESLA students would take all of the specialized science content courses and complete internships in local science venues," she said.

One of those is Discovery Space Children's Museum in State College, and Harli Weitz, who completed her yearlong Professional Development School student teaching assignment at Easterly Parkway Elementary School in June, took part in TESLA activities at the museum.

"I was always interested in science, but TESLA made me passionate about science education," Weitz said. "Being fortunate enough to work with and for the children at Discovery Space (Children's Museum) has made me a more confident and well-informed science educator."

Zembal-Saul said teacher learning and development must be viewed as a bigger picture than just taking education courses, and by doing so the University can have an impact on the way students see teaching and learning.

"Otherwise it's very didactic…somebody standing at the board giving you problems…you memorizing," she said. "That doesn't represent how science is really done and it certainly doesn't represent how we would like science to be taught in schools. It's that opportunity to have an impact before they get to us in science methods courses and other courses they take."

Zembal-Saul said when the content courses were first offered they were difficult to fill. But as the courses gained a reputation among students, the difficulty became having enough qualified faculty to teach them on a regular basis.

"I don't know if we've been able to attract more students because of science, but certainly the students that we have, the impact that we see, is what the TESLA students who have taken all the courses are good at is engaging with phenomena, supporting students in investigating problems and orchestrating classroom discourse in scientific ways," Zembal-Saul said.

All of which makes those students attractive to academic institutions seeking teachers. "Our students are scooped up in general," Zembal-Saul said. "We have a very good track record in our elementary education program; people come looking for students who are graduates of this program.

"My sense is they leave with at least the confidence to be able to engage in science and not let it fall off the back burner. What we're really trying to do now is get that integration with other subjects. The focus on literacy and language development through science and STEM learning opportunities is something that we're really working on.

And, according to Zembal-Saul, that philosophy is working.

"Having a way to stand out in STEM education and science education in particular is really unusual for elementary," she said. "For the TESLA students to be able to put that on a resume automatically sets them apart from 95 percent of the other people in that pool for that job."

Former Associate Dean for Undergraduate and Graduate Studies Stephanie Knight, who left Penn State Aug. 1 to become dean of the School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said the content-course concept is "probably the best that I have ever seen of integrating the content in science with the pedagogy that we are expert in.

"What often happens in secondary degrees like science education and math education," Knight said, "is that students have a body of content courses and then there's an overlay of pedagogy and they often don't see how the two fit together.

"What we do in science education and math education is provide courses like Carla's that integrate the two. That makes a much stronger science educator than leaving it to chance that the students themselves may be able to make these connections. If they've gone through a course in which they're actually doing it, it's much more successful," she said.

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Last Updated August 22, 2017