Middle school science teachers practice a lab experiment in viscosity during a two-week training session held on the Hayward Campus.
Why are some volcanoes more dangerous to people than others?
It’s a question a group of earth science middle school teachers set out to answer during a laboratory experiment held on Cal State East Bay’s Hayward campus in mid July during the Integrated Middle School Science Partnership (IMSS) Project. The IMSS brought to the university 68 sixth through eighth grade science teachers, from nine schools across the Bay Area, who participated in professional development programs aimed at promoting excellence in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—or STEM—education.
Linda Preminger, a sixth grade science teacher at Washington Manor in San Leandro, introduced participants to “Volcanoes: The Great Viscosity Race,” an experiment she says is a kid-pleaser.
“Every sixth grader wants to blow something up,” said Preminger, as her peers contemplated three Dixie cups filled with vegetable oil, dish soap and corn syrup lined up on lab tables.
Physics equipment, including a shallow stream table propped up at a 45-degree angle, was arranged on three lab stations in the CSUEB classroom, as teachers hovered over the table with anticipation. Their instructions? Pour each liquid down a stream table to determine which substance would win the race.
“On your mark, get set, go,” said Kelly Holand, an El Dorado Middle School science teacher, while pouring dish soap down the elevated stream table.
Designated time keeper and Edendale Middle School teacher Catherine Lee recorded a time of five minutes and 40 seconds, predicting the soap had the lowest viscosity, a term the experiment is meant to introduce to sixth grade students.
“We’re hoping that teachers take away a deeper science content knowledge, innovative ways of teaching science and (develop) a deeper enthusiasm for teaching the subject,” said project leader Jeffrey Seitz, a CSUEB earth and environmental sciences professor.
Funded by a $12 million five-year grant from the National Science Foundation, the summer institute supports CSUEB’s long-term mission of improving STEM education for area students, Seitz said.
Over a two-week period, CSUEB faculty members Seitz, Caron Inouye, Danika LeDuc and Jason Singley led group sessions focused on concepts from the life, earth and physical sciences.
CSUEB partnered with the Alameda County Office of Education and area school districts in the effort to heighten and enhance the student learning experience in middle school classrooms. Participating teachers welcomed the science-specific training.
“I want my kids to love science,” said Ariel Owen, science teacher at Foothill Middle School in Walnut Creek. “I want them to love the thoughtfulness of it (and) to be really skeptical thinkers.”
Teachers participating in the program agreed that science is fundamental to creating critical thinkers of tomorrow. Programs, such as the IMSS Project, contribute to that goal, said Krista Woodward, a science teacher at Don Callejon Middle School in Santa Clara.
“There’s been a discussion in and outside of the circle of education about how we’ve been producing students who are not critical thinkers,” Woodward said. “The more inquiry we have embedded, the more we’re doing the right thing of preparing them for higher education.”
The IMSS Project training comes at a time when school districts and educators nationwide are increasingly focusing on STEM-based curriculum. In an initiative announced in mid-July, for instance, the Obama Administration introduced plans for a $1 billion “Master Teacher Program” in which teachers who specialize in STEM education will receive annual bonuses of up to $20,000.
Seitz observed that there is high demand regionally and nationwide for workers with a STEM background, but the country isn’t producing enough scientists, engineers and mathematicians to fill the void. Seitz refers to the imbalance as a crisis situation.
“By improving science education we will be able to ultimately have more students who are interested in pursuing science careers,” he added.
Several teachers pointed out that the program goes beyond supporting the needs of their students.
“The content that we’re learning in (the program) goes way more in depth than what our textbooks offer, so whenever we’re more knowledgeable about the topics, it improves our confidence when we teach,” said Dustin Umberger, science teacher at Alta Loma Middle School in South San Francisco.
The institute also focused on implementing inquiry-based learning in middle school science courses, something teachers said has been ignored in the past.
“It’s great to get together with colleagues and get reinvigorated,” said Owen who has been teaching for 20 years. “I’m really excited about going back to school with this (new content) and doing more hands on activities and more of what science really is, which is curious play with outcome.”