Earlier entrance into classroom helping to prepare future science teachers

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — These pre-service teachers are about two months away from officially becoming known as student teachers, yet on five days every two weeks they lead an activity in a Park Forest Middle School science classroom, construct rubrics to grade test papers and put their two cents into acquiring a sense of writing curriculum.

A day in the life of a future teacher is getting curiouser and curiouser in Penn State's College of Education, but there's no fairy-tale ending. It's a very real version of the countless facets of teaching — the enthusiasm that's necessary to capture the attention of all ages, the collaboration that's behind ongoing professional relationships, and getting a taste of not only bonds that can form but just how important a teacher can be in the life of exceedingly impressionable students.

That's life in SCIED 412 and C&I 495C, one class blended between Secondary Science Teaching II and the Department of Curriculum and Instruction's field experience class. Those involved with Associate Professor (Science Education) Scott McDonald's SCIED 412 course, such as College of Education field supervisors Rick Graffius and Norma Holowach, receive the added benefit of the cooperation of middle school science teachers at Park Forest in the State College Area School District.

Instead of classroom sessions in Chambers Building on campus to precede pre-service placement, McDonald's combined class of undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students get to observe, participate and learn from veteran teachers before encountering their own classroom assignment in January.

Never to early to be pros

McDonald treats the prospective teachers as "young professionals," as he calls them. "They're really no longer students," he said. "I want them struggling with the professional decisions. That's how they really learn how to do this, but we're doing it in a way that's really supportive."

His learning-by-doing approach is at once interesting and intriguing. It's a piece of a puzzle under Penn State President Eric Barron's engaged scholarship initiative, according to McDonald. "I could have these kids sit in a classroom and I could lecture to them or even have a discussion with them about what it means to do a certain kind of teaching, how to do assessment with the kids or what classroom management looks like, but nothing is better than this," he said.

McDonald broke up his 22 students in two groups of five for seventh-grade science classes and three groups of four for eighth grade. On this particular Tuesday (Oct. 17), four pre-service teachers led Mike Bierly's Park Forest class in a discussion about energy and forces. The students watched a gif of a man in a deep, cylindrically shaped hole who escaped from that hole by running in a circle, all the while taking large strides and ascending diagonally.

The question, according to McDonald, was if it would take the same amount of force for the man to run in a spiral as it would to run straight up the side. Teachers sought in-class observations from students and received well-conceived answers. A group in another classroom had experimented with the "happy/sad" ball in which two balls were dropped, one would bounce and the other hits and stays on the ground without bouncing. It was another part of their investigation into energy and McDonald said his students developed an assessment for it and then proceeded to work on developing a scoring rubric.

"For me, the educational value of that is an authentic task, developing assessment, developing a rubric, scoring those, realizing the differences," McDonald said. "The great thing is, they have three colleagues they're working with that they can bounce ideas off, and then a mentor teacher they can include in that conversation. These things become pretty robust pretty quickly. This gives them a pretty intense way to develop a really high-quality rubric and assessment."

A favorable reaction

That McDonald's students entered the classroom on the first day of school at Park Forest this fall has been an advantage. "In my opinion, it's been remarkable," McDonald said.

"My students have been with this group of kids from the first day of school. They've seen the first nine weeks of school in a way a lot of teachers don't. These guys see how you start things and what the beginning looks like and how you set up norms for a classroom. I think that's really powerful," McDonald said.

Park Forest Middle School teacher Karianne Chessario — a former meteorologist who returned to Penn State to earn her master's degree in earth science and her teaching certificate in 2005 — supported McDonald's sentiment about the advantages of having students enter the school on the very first day of classes.

"It's wonderful because from the first day they were getting to know the students the same way that I was and they were also able to see how everything is set up," Chessario said.

"The way that we do our pedagogy through content story line, we basically start from day one. So this way, when they're able to come in on day one, they see how the teachers are able to set it up and help to get the students to use the right mind-set, to use the right lenses, to view science as a process rather than science as a body of knowledge."

Making the field more attractive

The innovation within the program can only be beneficial in attracting teachers of science to a field that's not overly populated. Graduate student Joe Robison, for example, said he's always had a passion for science but realized after graduation there weren't many jobs to allow him to express that.

"I decided to go into teaching just so I could share my love of science with students," Robison said. "I like getting to know it well enough to explain it to people. I think it's been rewarding so far in student teaching and I'm excited.''

Carleigh McGurk, who has an undergraduate degree in chemistry, said that was the class in high school that everyone hated, and its negative stigma was enough to make her not want to take any advanced courses.

"But I had a chemistry teacher in high school and he showed me that I was good at it and because of him I took three more classes of chemistry and I got to college and I did an undergrad in chemistry," McGurk said. "I guess I just kind of wanted to make that difference that my teacher made to me."

Cooperation and collaboration are key

Easily incorporating themselves into a classroom is more of a seamless transition for students because McDonald has had a lengthy relationship with the five science teachers at Park Forest. "It's a real gift they're giving us," said McDonald, adding that he believes the program is beneficial to both sides.

"Having a bunch of smart Penn State students here that they can bounce ideas off of and talk with and curriculum ideas that they're having or whatever it is and hearing these guys talk about what's going on in their class from each other is good for my students to get a sense of how you interact as a colleague and a peer," McDonald said. "When they are teachers they'll have a sense of what that's supposed to look like."

Eventually, that will include writing curriculum, and McDonald's students are getting an early start on that as well. The district is in a curriculum-writing year and McDonald’s students are assisting with capturing and co-planning with both 7th and 8th grade units. The hope is that these units, when they are finished at the end of the semester, can be models for Next Generation Science Standards-aligned curricula in the district and beyond. 

"They're also acting sort of like scribes and keeping track of what these teachers do in terms of curriculum, and they're going to help craft that with their mentor teachers into sort of finalized documents that the State College schools can either use or not use as curriculum units," McDonald said.

"In the past, my students write units for me and always have as part of my class, but this is the first time they're really constructing something for a specific audience that really has a possibility of being adopted in some way."

Different can be good

Yet another reason, McDonald said, why pre-service teachers being exposed to actual classrooms early on is greatly beneficial.

"The thing that makes this different from dumping them in a classroom and letting them do it is all the peer support and all the structure that the mentor teachers and I put in place to make this thing feel like a class," McDonald said. "We need more of our institution to look like that.

"It's still crazy that we bring 50,000 really strong, talented, capable young people to our campus and then sit them in a room and make them listen to someone talk," he said. "Even the small classes are like that, just a teacher at the podium teaching. Those kids are not talking to each other, they're just responding to the teacher."

McDonald's belief is that students brought in via Penn State standards are good students and should be treated as assets to the University and collaborators with faculty. "Why not take advantage of it and use that to their advantage and to our advantage and make the University a place where they are doing some interesting work?" he said.

"I look around and they are having so many professional conversations without me. I really think this is fun; I'm glad it worked out."

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Last Updated November 21, 2017