from PRINCETON UNIVERSITY
Hands-on science: Quest program lets teachers do the learning
PRINCETON, N.J. -- It was a dramatic moment in a Guyot Hall laboratory the morning of Thursday, July 17, as elementary school teacher Debbie Baker injected a syringe of red water into the underside of a mound of gelatin.
Four other teachers huddled with rapt attention, then broke into whoops and gasps as a red stream erupted through the gelatin and gushed down the mound onto a cluster of Monopoly-game houses.
"We lost the village!" said Baker, a teacher at the Wilbur Watts Intermediate School in Burlington, N.J.
"That was amazing!" said Darlene Brown of the Elias Boudinot Elementary School, also in Burlington.
The mock disaster was a demonstration of the dynamics of volcanoes and lava flows. It was the kind of hands-on learning experience that filled the last two weeks for 57 New Jersey middle and elementary school teachers who participated in Princeton University's Quest program, which ran through Friday, July 18.
The Quest program brings local teachers together with Princeton scientists and students in a series of workshops aimed at enhancing their knowledge of science and inspiring new ways to present the material to students. The program is hosted by the University's Program in Teacher Preparation, in collaboration with the Princeton Environmental Institute and the Princeton Center for Complex Materials.
In addition to working directly with faculty and staff members, Quest participants hear talks by Princeton scientists and graduate students who relate the workshop lessons to current, cutting-edge research. Each workshop also has a lead teacher, a participant from previous years who helps new enrollees absorb the ideas and prepare them for their own classrooms. The workshops receive further assistance from Quest Fellows, Princeton undergraduates who are training for careers in teaching through the Teacher Preparation program.
The topics of the workshops range from weather and climate to astronomy. In each, the main goal is to immerse the teachers in "inquiry-based learning," which emphasizes self-directed investigation rather than textbook learning.
"We're basically acting like a scientist would," said Frank Nicoletti of Florence Township Middle School. "And that is how we want our students to act. Instead of feeding them the questions and confirming the answers, we want them to find it out themselves."
Nicoletti participated in an environmental science workshop, led by Eileen Zerba of the Princeton Environmental Institute, in which the teachers filled aquariums with water from Lake Carnegie and measured the pH, the level of chlorophyll, the amount of oxygen and many other variables. They then systematically altered the samples -- adding fertilizer, blocking the sun, taking out plants -- and repeated their measurements throughout the week. A key part of the exercise came on the first day, when Zerba made the teachers predict what would happen to the various samples.
"When you make a prediction and then that's the way it really comes out, you feel good," Nicoletti said. "It's those moments when you get that 'Aha…' When I was in school, I didn't get that until college."
In the earthquakes and volcanoes workshop -- led by Laurel Goodell, a senior technical staff member in Princeton's geosciences department -- the excitement of the red-water lava flows settled into murmurs of understanding as Goodell showed the teachers a giant map of Hawaii where the geological formations and buried towns were remarkably similar to the fault lines in their gelatin mounds.
"I notice so many things that I didn't notice before," said Roslyn Richards, a teacher at the Grace N. Rogers Elementary School in East Windsor. Following the workshop on astronomy, she made her husband stop their car one night so she could look at the full moon. A demonstration with Styrofoam balls and a light bulb had helped her understand why the same face of the moon is always visible to people on Earth. "It was incredible," she said. "Everyone in the room just had a light going off. Once you get it, it clicks like you wouldn't believe."
Other workshops were led by Princeton faculty and staff members Antoine Kahn, Shivaji Sondhi and Daniel Steinberg of the Princeton Center for Complex Materials; Andrew Bocarsly of the chemistry department; Francois Morel of the Princeton Environmental Institute; and Steve Carson, who was a scientist at the Princeton Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab and is now a teacher at the John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton.
The year's Quest program was an emotional experience for many of those involved because it followed the recent death of Princeton physicist Aaron Lemonick, the longtime director of the program whose enthusiasm and teaching skill were legendary. Lemonick had been working up until his death at age 80 on plans for the astronomy workshop, which he led.
"In our profession there's an expression, 'In teaching lies immortality.' And I truly experienced that," said Ilene Levine of Roosevelt Public School, who is one of the lead teachers and worked closely with Lemonick. "I could see that even though Aaron was not there, his work was there. It was a revelation to see that."
This year's astronomy workshop became the joint effort of Levine, graduate student Joe Hennawi, astrophysics professor Michael Strauss, Princeton ecology professor and amateur astronomer Henry Horn and science journalist Michael Lemonick, who is Lemonick's son and gave the opening talk of the workshop.
"With this whole team working together, we provided the same experience that Aaron had planned," Levine said. "Aaron would have been very proud."