Feeding a Need to Learn

Fall 2009

Innovative summer programs invigorate students and teachers.

ou don’t have to convince Tyler Majercik-Scott that science is cool.

“Today, we made nylon,” says the eighth-grader at St. John the Evangelist School in Binghamton. “We mixed these two chemicals, and we swirled it about, and it became nylon. It was pretty fun.”

Majercik-Scott’s encounter with one of the most commonly used synthetic polymers is not the sort of thing most middle-school students get to do in the summer. But through Binghamton University’s Go Green Institute, Majercik-Scott was one of 50 high-achieving middle-school students who came to campus for a learning experience that not only offered them advanced science but also exposed them to ideas about sustainability and a greener living environment.

The cool thing is, everybody is so enthusiastic because everybody is here because they want to learn.”
- Linda Ryan

On another part of campus, a group of history teachers was examining how advances in transportation technology fueled the ı9th century westward expansion of the United States. The teachers, who hailed from several school districts across a four-county region, were participating in a workshop held by the Center for the Teaching of American History.

These summer learning programs are but two of the ways the University is having an impact on K-ı2 education in an area stretching from the Finger Lakes to the Catskills. Through efforts such as Go Green, the Center for the Teaching of American History and last year’s Big Ideas in Science Institute, faculty at the School of Education, Harpur College of Arts and Sciences and the Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science are partnering with nearby school districts, community colleges and the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). As a result, teachers of history, science and mathematics are learning and exchanging new ideas to reinvigorate their teaching and help them improve student achievement.

“As a public university, we have a mission to not only provide outstanding educational opportunities for current students, but also to be sensitive to the pipeline for the next generation of students,” says Wayne Jones, professor of chemistry and director of Go Green.

Why do I have to know this?
When Gary Emerson, MA ’00 started his teaching career, Gerald R. Ford was president of the United States and Barack Obama was in prep school. For all the history that’s been made since then, the attitude of many students toward the subject remains the same.

“There are kids who just don’t see why it’s important,” says Emerson, now in his 33rd year as a teacher. “It’s ‘Why do I have to know this? What does this have to do with me?’ You always have to make those connections as to how these things that happened in the past have had an impact on the way things are today.”

About the programs

YouTube video Kids Go Green

> The Big Ideas in Science Institute (BISI)

> The Go Green Institute

> The Center for the Teaching of American History


The Center for the Teaching of American History, established in 200ı and funded by the U.S. Department of Education, allows collaboration between the History Department and the School of Education, with faculty offering a variety of professional development activities to K-ı2 teachers including summer workshops on campus, online workshops, in-service curriculum workshops at schools, even a book-reading circle. Two week-long workshops this summer focused on westward expansion and the rise of industrial America.

“Because of the Teaching of American History program, the Department of Education has succeeded in breaking down barriers between academic history as taught at colleges and the teaching of history in the K-ı2 world,” says Thomas Dublin, professor of history and co-director of the center.

In addition to trying to bust through student apathy about learning history, New York, like many other states, has been tightening standards for teaching the subject. Students in the state are tested on their knowledge of history in fifth, eighth, ı0th and ııth grades. Sophomores and juniors are required to take Regents examinations in history.

“One thing that makes it difficult in New York is relentless pressure from standardized testing, which leaves teachers very little wiggle room,” says Adam Laats, assistant professor of education and associate director of the center. And children need wiggle room, he adds.

The structure of the center’s programs works well, he says, because every district has different expectations for teachers. Telling teachers “here’s one idea, use it” wouldn’t work.

“We say, here are some primary documents, here are some collections, here are some idea strategies, here are some reading strategies,” Laats says. “Now, you tell us which one you want to use in your classroom.” That enables teachers to tailor their approach to their particular classroom’s situation.

“I loved being a history teacher, but kids now need more than just someone to teach them facts, dates and things like that,” says Tim Cooper, MST ’72, the center’s curriculum specialist and a retired teacher. “You have got to do things that make them think, that make them understand how to read something. You have to make them able to formulate their own ideas, and they certainly have to be able to write.”

One measure of the center’s success, Dublin says, is that so many teachers and librarians want to return for more workshops — and there is a “substantial” waiting list.

Emerson, who teaches American history to ııth graders at Newfield High School, has attended five summer workshops and was a facilitator for the 2009 workshop in August. The workshops helped him develop different approaches to subjects such as Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, and the connections between the ı9th century populist movement and the novel The Wizard of Oz. He keeps returning for more workshops because of the creative stimulation of meeting with other teachers.

“Too often in the classroom, teachers don’t get to see other teachers teach. Sure, we talk to each other when we can, but we don’t get to see others teach,” he says. “The workshops are an opportunity to meet with other teachers and learn from each other.”

A peculiar vocabulary
Like history’s names and dates, much of what future teachers learn about science, Thomas O’Brien believes, is a result of a “mindless memorization.”

“They have what John Dewey would have referred to as ‘the peculiar vocabulary’ that they use. If it’s a mathematical science they have certain heuristics, problem-solving techniques, that they use fairly automatically, without necessarily really understanding it,” says O’Brien, associate professor in the School of Education and director of the Big Ideas in Science Institute (BISI). “Science should be taught in mindful ways, with experiments and demonstrations where nature does the talking, and you look and say ‘Oh my goodness! How can we explain that?’”

Many teachers have not had those experiences in their science classes or in their education classes, O’Brien says.

BISI, held in 2008 but on hiatus this year because of budget constraints, is designed to enhance teachers’ understanding of the “big ideas” that connect different areas of science; suggestions for teaching the material are part of the program. These “big ideas” include cell theory and evolution via natural selection, the law of conservation of matter and the atomic/kinetic molecular theory, the theory of plate tectonics and geological time, and energy transformations and conservation.

“It’s necessary to know science to teach science, but it’s not sufficient,” he says. “What are the most powerful demonstrations, the great simulations and analogies, all those kinds of things that enable you to translate ideas and theories which took great minds hundreds of years to figure out, and translate that into something that fifth- to eighth-grade students can actually understand rather than just regurgitate?”

As a former student of O’Brien’s, Janet Krasniak, MAT ’06 has already adopted his philosophy of teaching. She attended BISI looking for more resources for her students.

“My goal is to get kids to think, and a lot of them want to be told the answer so they can remember it and go from there,” says Krasniak, a middle-school science teacher in the Union-Endicott School District. “I prefer to see them come to the answer based on their own thinking process. So instead of a lesson where I tell them all the answers, I much prefer them making observations so they can figure it out for themselves.”

That approach, she says, requires more work by the students, “but those lessons stay with them much longer if they come to a conclusion on their own.”

A national model
Before she arrived for the first day of this year’s Go Green Institute, Linda Ryan was nervous and pictured herself sitting alone in a cafeteria. What she found instead were kindred spirits, high-achieving students with common interests in science and math.

“Everyone here is so nice. If you mess up, nobody freaks out about it,” says Ryan, who attends middle school in the Maine-Endwell School District. “We’re learning so much we don’t learn in school.”

The students in Go Green represent the top two percent of incoming eighth graders in ı5 different schools. By introducing its participants to high school-level science in a university environment, Go Green addresses some of the pressures of middle school.

“Sometimes these students are bored. Sometimes they find it’s not socially acceptable to be interested in science and math at an age — ı2, ı3, ı4 — when those social structures can be very important to their development,” Jones says. “We want to provide them with an environment where they will see exciting opportunities that will keep them engaged.”

Go Green offers students opportunities to explore issues of science, math and engineering as they relate to creating a sustainable living environment. Students conduct lab experiments and take field trips. A facilitator, usually a middle-school science teacher or Binghamton doctoral student, helps groups work on problems related to sustainability, such as whether paper or plastic is better for the environment, what’s the best way to power an automobile, or how much energy and natural resources the students’ households consume.

“The problems are broad, and the students have to define the questions and solutions themselves,” Jones says.

Go Green takes advantage of Binghamton’s strengths in research, the quality of faculty and students, and its leadership in education in New York and beyond, Jones says. He believes the Go Green and BISI programs can be national models for teaching science and math in the context of sustainability.

“The biggest challenge our nation and our world face is the need for lots of bright people thinking about science and engineering,” he continues. “These kids are the ones who are going to solve the problems we’re facing and creating today.”

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