Teachers in Panama, so what?

Teacher as learner, scientist as teacher
Teacher as learner, scientist as teacher. (Photo: Rob Hoffman)

The following is something I wrote as I tried to capture the value of the PCP-PIRE trip, months removed, in preparation for a return trip I took in September (more on that later).

Teachers are the expert in the science classroom, but they are not necessarily scientists.  Their task is to develop their students into practicing scientists, critical thinkers, and problem solvers, so that they may consider pursuing a career or college degree in the sciences. However, it is possible, perhaps common, in the US to become a science teacher by taking a test or earning an undergraduate science degree, without ever having participated in scientific research or practiced science beyond the classroom. The result can be an approach to the teaching of science as if it is simply a definitive set of information to be memorized. Through this experience, the practice of science comes alive. Participants are thrust into the dynamic and exciting world of “doing” science. This is why the PCP PIRE program sending California and Florida teachers to Panama to engage in the practice of science, alongside scientists, professors, PhD’s and interns, is such a valuable opportunity for science educators.

The PCP-PIRE teacher experience has influenced the participants both as scientists and as teachers, and will have a significant impact on the way they teach from now on. For example, one could not help but notice the interconnectedness of the international science community, and how each investigation is built upon and connected to other investigations around the world. A new fossil or hypothesis can send a ripple effect around the world as scientists integrate this new information into their analyses. This fundamental element of science is not obvious to the student learning science via a textbook, but for the teachers that scaled the banks of the Panama Canal, walking alongside renowned scientists to find fossils that contribute to Panama’s fossil record, this is part of their experience. The teachers also found value in how the trip reaffirmed some of the dominant discourse about teaching and learning. Teacher collaboration led to a multi-faceted and comprehensive lesson delivered to Panamanian fifth graders at the Gatun Formation. The detailed notes jotted into field notebooks on the Canal digs scientific illustrationreminded some of the importance of students taking good notes. The pool-side chats were reminiscent of “professional learning communities”, as we all contributed our ideas and expertise toward a common goal that served us all.

As visiting scientists, the PCP PIRE teachers are exposed to science in action, some of which began decades ago yet continues to develop. Witnessing the incremental shifts in what is known about the world – in this case, the world millions of years ago – is an important aspect of scientific knowledge, and one that may not be clear to K-12 students because of the need to move on to cover more content. Investigations have a deadline, and then we move on, even when we are leaving more questions on the table. The practice of science, however, is about deep learning in order to develop a comprehensive understanding. The Next Generation Science Standards and the Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (NRC 2011) however, represent a departure from this “mile-wide-and-an-inch-deep” approach to science instruction, and identify 8 science practices essential to the learning of any science content. The opportunity to witness these practices as they unfold in the field will provide teachers with a better understanding of their application, and support the development of lessons and units that actively engage students in these practices.

Brook Knoll Elementary 1st Graders carefully observing 10 million year old fossils from PanamaThe year two PCP-PIRE cohort participated in a number of investigations while in Panama, each of which can translate into a number Biology, Earth Science and Chemistry lessons for K-12 students. These lessons will differ from those offered by any textbook company in that they will be enriched by the hands-on experience developed in the field, as well as the photos taken, specimens collected, and communications with the field scientists. The science in the classroom will be relevant (beyond speculation) to “real” science taking place in Panama by researchers from reputable institutions such as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the University of Florida.

The value of the experience does not end with lesson plans; its reach goes far beyond that and can impact more students than just those in the classrooms of participating teachers. With new standards comes a new approach to content, and this will require significant professional development. Using the PCP-PIRE Panama experience as a backdrop, participating teachers will be in a position to share of lessons and lessons learned. Each training would be an expansion on the impact of this project, and each training could lead to improved science instruction in K-12 classrooms. This will be the


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