Teaching to Teach

Science teacher intern Maegan Nelson of Whitman College leads a summer workshop at Trinity. Photo: John Atashian
Science teacher intern Maegan Nelson of Whitman College leads a summer workshop at Trinity. Photo: John Atashian

NSF-funded program aims to increase number of STEM educators

By Andrew J. Concatelli

A new program hosted in part at Trinity College gives aspiring secondary education teachers the most practical experience possible: teaching a course to high school students.

Twelve undergraduate students from around the country came to Trinity last summer to teach a science workshop to 10th-grade students from Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy (HMTCA). The 12 students constituted the first cohort of science teacher interns in the Summer STEM Teaching Experiences for Undergraduates from Liberal Arts Institutions (TEU) program, which is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“The goal of the NSF grant is to increase the number of students from liberal arts institutions who are preparing to teach math and science,” says Trinity Science Center Director Alison J. Draper, who is also a lecturer in interdisciplinary science. “This puts Trinity at the forefront of liberal arts colleges who are trying to support students who want to go on to a career in secondary education.”

Draper is a co-principal investigator on the grant, along with two mathematicians from Vassar College and Bryn Mawr College. The grant of $2,137,727 was awarded to Vassar College, with $685,445 of that going to Trinity. Brown University, Bryn Mawr, and Barnard College are also partners on the grant, which will fund the TEU program for five years.

Larsson Family Scholar Jessica Voight ’17 instructs HMTCA 10th-graders at Beachland Park as Denise Rau, senior lecturer and laboratory coordinator in chemistry at Trinity, looks on. Photo: John Atashian

Undergraduate students from a network of about 60 liberal arts colleges and universities — Trinity students included — are eligible to apply for the summer program each year. Twelve students participate in a mathematics TEU program at Brown, and 12 in the science TEU program at Trinity. The grant also pays for instructors to train the undergraduates to teach the high school students and to supervise them in the field.

Last summer’s seven-week program included two weeks of training, four weeks of teaching, and a week of debriefing. Undergraduates from Columbia University, Whitman College, Lawrence University, Grinnell College, Harvey Mudd College, Bryn Mawr College, and Wesleyan University, along with two Trinity students, gathered in Hartford. The group bonded quickly. Draper says, “For these undergraduates, on their home campuses, they are each one of a very few students who are intending a career in secondary education. So to come together as a cohort of 12 of them who are interested in the same thing, for many of them this is the first and only time that has happened.”

As part of Trinity and HMTCA’s ongoing education partnership, HMTCA students must take a writing workshop before 9th grade and a science workshop before 10th grade to maintain a spot in the award-winning magnet school. The summer science workshop has been held at Trinity for the past five years. “Our goal for the science workshop is to model how science is done in the real world,” Draper says.

Robert Cotto, Jr., director of urban educational initiatives and lecturer in educational studies at Trinity, says that the HMTCA partnership gives high school students a positive, early experience on a college campus and allows the undergraduates to gain real teaching skills. “The NSF-TEU program has strengthened the HMTCA-Trinity College partnership and has provided new resources and expertise in the teaching of science for the summer academy,” Cotto says. “Taking advantage of our urban location and unique partnership, HMTCA-Trinity College [Summer Science Academy] is becoming a national hub for undergraduates interested in teaching science.”

Kurt Love, the director of science education for the summer TEU program, teaches the summer “Methods of Teaching Secondary Science” course at Trinity, which includes giving lessons in secondary science pedagogy, supervising the practicum, and leading a team of three experienced HMTCA teachers who serve as mentors and instructional coaches to the undergraduate students.

“We spent two weeks talking about what it means to be a science teacher,” Love says. “The undergraduates all had strong science backgrounds, but not all of them had a teaching background. To become a teacher is to do teaching. That’s the strength of the program; they get right into it, and they have a lot of support.”

Voight takes the students out into the water to collect samples. Photo: John Atashian

The HMTCA curriculum includes problem-solving activities — such as building catapults and completing an “egg drop” challenge — and laboratory experiments. Draper says, “They dissected a sheep eyeball, they did a set of vision tests and explored the sense of vision, they did a forensics activity and a DNA extraction.

“I think the most important part of the experience for the high school students is the research project to assess the health of the Trout Brook, which is part of the Park River Watershed,” Draper says. “We took them to two different sites — Beachland Park and Spicebush Swamp [in West Hartford] — where the students did some water chemistry tests and looked at the macroinvertebrate populations in the sediment as a way to tell how much pollution is there. At the end of the course, they have to present what they found.”

In the coming years, Draper says, more emphasis may be placed on the research project, and the curriculum could be adjusted to highlight the themes of sustainability, conservation, and ecology, which seem to resonate with the students. Those subjects are also of particular interest to Love, an assistant professor at Central Connecticut State University in the teacher education department who studies environmental issues and promotes land consciousness.

Warrington Scholar and Trinity Club of Hartford Scholar Connie Ky ’17, a Trinity neuroscience major who was a member of the TEU program last summer, grew up in Hartford and attended the school that is now HMTCA. She says that she enjoyed exposing high school students to new experiences outdoors during their trips to the river. “Some students had never gone that far outside of the city before,” Ky says. “They wanted to have their parents bring them back there and to do more things that would get them outside. The students were really willing to explore.”

Ky, who plans to become a science teacher, appreciated the opportunity to encourage high school students to pursue STEM by showing them the diverse array of careers and people within the fields. “When we discussed DNA, we made sure the students knew not only Watson and Crick, but also Rosalind Franklin,” Ky says. “When we discussed the intersection between art and science, we showed them the works of Maria Peñil Cobo, a woman who creates art out of cell cultures.”

Love says that by the end of the program, the participants are well prepared to go into student teaching. “They could go into a classroom today and teach science if they wanted to,” he says. “It’s a new way of teaching science education preparation, and I think it’s something that more colleges should look at as a possibility.”

Two HMTCA students examine their finds. Photo: John Atashian

Draper adds that the interns gained experience teaching in an urban school district and learned to engage students who may be reticent. “In terms of expanding the pipeline of prospective teachers who want to serve in urban districts, this is huge,” she says.

The program also will serve as a way to develop and to test a model that can be shared and duplicated. “We would really like other institutions in other parts of the country to be able to pick up this model and mount their own program,” Draper says. “We think it’s a good idea, and it serves a number of purposes all at once. We’re continuing to serve HMTCA and their students, but we’re also serving our own students and students at partner institutions, so it’s a win-win-win.”