Growing Science and Technology Educators
By Sarah Anderson, Hawai`i Island Akamai Observatory Program Coordinator. All images courtesy of S. Anderson/WMKO.
At first glance the people gathered in groups of threes and fours at round tables in the Maui hotel courtyard and on the lawn on the other side of the koi pond could be typical vacationers or high volume salespeople rewarded with a trip to the land of aloha. The resort waterfall lent white background music and the voices of deep discussion were carried along its current.
Emily Rice, seated at one of the tables, is a graduate student in astronomy at the University of California at Los Angeles and has often visited Hawai’i not as a tourist but as part of a Keck observing team. She picked up a five inch round curved mirror and brought it up to eye level. Holding the mirror at arm’s length, the magnified image she saw of her eye was upside down. As she brought the mirror closer the image blurred briefly and then popped back into focus, right side up. Across the table, Greg Wirth, a support astronomer with the Keck Observatory, picked up another mirror and checked out the phenomena as the discussion continued.
The fifty people in the courtyard were participants in a workshop designed to provide innovative teaching tools for science education. Composed largely of science and engineering graduate students, they will be tomorrow’s university professors and will influence thousands of undergraduates over the course of their careers. How they will teach their science courses will impact other students who are pursuing careers in science, as well as students who are preparing to be K-12 teachers.
Complimenting the group of graduate students were a handful of science and engineering professionals including college instructors and post doctoral researchers who were also interested in honing their educational talents.
The Professional Development Program (PDP) is one of the components of a multi-strand education program developed at the Center for Adaptive Optics (CfAO) on the campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) and funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation. The Center’s broad goal is to encourage, retain and develop students in the science and engineering fields, with a focus on those from backgrounds not traditionally represented in these disciplines. One of the program’s strategies is to offer a professional development workshop in science education to graduate students and interested professionals and then leverage these individuals into other programs to impact a larger population of undergraduates.
The 2008 Professional Development Program Workshop opened with a keynote address by Dr. Randy Phelps, an astronomer and staff associate with the Office of Integrative Activities at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Only a decade or so older than some of the students, with snappy blue eyes and a relaxed delivery, he drew a parallel between the early Hawaiian navigators, their remarkable understanding of astronomy and the roomful of participants’ own commitment to discovery. He described how the workshop is an excellent example of the type of program the NSF is proud to support because it bridges academic and research environments to the workplace and provides scientists and engineers with teaching and communication tools to enhance the technology expertise of the United States.
The 2008 workshop was held over four days in March. New participants were invited to attend a one day introductory session the previous November that highlighted different approaches to hands-on learning. Participants then enroll in the workshop and are encouraged to return in subsequent years to practice the principles and techniques they have learned. During the 2008 workshop students followed one of two learning pathways depending on their new or returning status. A primary focus for all was participation in planning a hands-on inquiry science or engineering teaching experience based on the CfAO model.
Following the workshop the graduate students then put their knowledge into practice in an actual teaching venue that the CfAO has either created independently or developed in partnership with existing educational organizations.
CfAO related teaching venues available to workshop participants span the Pacific Ocean and reflect the educational cross-pollination between the West Coast and the Islands that the organization embraces. Local venues include the Maui and Big Island Akamai Internship short courses, Maui Community College electro-optics instrumentation courses, and the Maui high school bridge programs.
Lisa Hunter, who is the Director of Education at the CfAO and provides its overall coordination and leadership, reported, “By working with graduate students we hope to make a significant change in how science is taught in college. We are convinced that the way that we teach college science affects the diversity of people in the sciences, and whether students who start off in science majors stick with it.” Another critically important role of college science courses is in the preparation of future K-12 teachers. “The closest most science teachers will ever get to doing real science is in a college laboratory course yet in looking at how teachers are prepared, this is not really getting any attention,” said Hunter.
Until now. On the surface, the 2008 PDP workshop may have appeared like a vacation for scientists and engineers, but the work being done around the resort koi pond by the fifty participants is key to the development of an effective science and technology workforce in Hawai’i.