Taking Teachers Into Field Helps Schools, Students, Study Finds

October 16, 2009
News Subtitle: 
Pioneering Program Connects Educators with Research Scientists



Training teachers to do science in the field or laboratory measurably increases the academic performance of their students and may have far-reaching economic benefits, according to a study published this week in the journal Science. The number of high school students passing New York State’s standardized tests, the Regents exams, is raised by as much as 10 percentage points if the teachers participated in Columbia University’s Summer Research Program for Science Teachers, the study found.

“This is a simple concept,” said Dr. Samuel Silverstein , a professor at Columbia University Medical Center who founded the program and is the lead author of the study. “It uses existing human and physical resources. Its economic benefits exceed its costs. In short, it works.” Among others, scientists at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have been working with the teachers since the program began in 1990.

By reinvigorating teachers and boosting student achievement, the program also seems to improve the bottom line for school districts, the study suggests. Only 2.3 percent of the teachers who went through the program later left teaching, compared to the national average of 6.3 percent, the study found. And with more students passing the Regents, the schools could spend less on summer classes and repeat exams. The study estimates that for each group of 10 teachers who went through the program, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) saved nearly $19,000 in teacher recruitment costs, and nearly $298,000 in summer school savings and related costs. For each dollar invested in the program, the authors estimate an overall return of $1.14 in immediate economic benefits and $10.27 in the long term.

There are countless programs to improve science teaching in the United States, but Columbia’s is unique in that it has tracked student outcomes over the last 12 years to monitor its performance. The DOE’s record keeping provided critical help. “Other teacher research programs are not able to collect similar data,” said Jay Dubner, program coordinator and study co-author. “Their data is not localized, and in many states, a standardized science exam does not yet exist."

About a dozen New York City middle and high school teachers are picked from up to 60 applicants each spring to spend two consecutive summers working on research with Columbia faculty. Teachers receive a $6,000 summer stipend, access to Columbia’s libraries, and up to $2,000 or classroom lab supplies and equipment and travel to scientific conferences each year.

Nearly 200 Columbia faculty members have involved teachers in their research and provided ongoing mentoring. Columbia graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and staff have also worked with the teachers during the summer and visited their schools during the school year.  For many students, these interactions with graduate students and fellows are their first contact with someone close to their age pursuing a career in science, said Silverstein.

On a typical day in the field at Lamont-Doherty, scientists might assign the teachers to scoop minnows from Piermont Marsh on the Hudson River, collect invasive plants or sample tidal water for nutrients and dissolved oxygen. 

“They have bachelor degrees in science and go off to teach,” said Robert Newton , a geochemist at Lamont-Doherty who helps coordinate the program. “After years in the classroom, science becomes what’s in the book. They lose any connection with the playfulness, experimentation and fun.”

Many of the teachers end up incorporating new material into their curriculum. Michael Moshos, an environmental science teacher at New York Harbor School, finished the two-year program this summer and is now working with his students to monitor water quality around a newly planted oyster bed in New York harbor. The class has been measuring nutrients and dissolved oxygen and will expand their monitoring to include heavy metals, to see if the filter feeders can clean the water.

“In previous years I would provide students with information,” said Moshos. “Now I try to provide my students with questions and allow them to search for answers themselves. Instead of giving them an experiment with the procedures already laid out, I allow groups to create their own procedures to complete the experiment.  It might be more time consuming, but I feel my students are learning what science is all about.”

Other authors of the study include Columbia economist Sherry Glied, John Loike of Columbia University Medical Center, and Jon Miller from the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at Michigan State University.

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Kevin Krajick
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