Scholars go to the schools to teach science
Princeton NJ -- As a high school science teacher, Mark Volpe has attended his share of professional development programs and seminars. Few, however, have given him the chance to ask such big philosophical questions as, "What are the criteria for truth? How do we know what is true?"
"I enjoyed it thoroughly," said Volpe. "It was so nice to go into an academic setting and be able to ask someone else questions, instead of standing up in front of a room and talking. It's nice to have a little role reversal."
The seminar paired Lemonick, whose humor and plain language made him a beloved teacher at Princeton, with Ilene Levine, a third-grade teacher from Roosevelt, N.J., who interspersed his anecdotes and scientific explanations with practical, hands-on demonstrations. The teachers built their own telescopes, peered through prisms and gazed at a simulated cosmos in a miniature planetarium that can be used in classrooms.
"It is really an opportunity for Aaron to share what he is so very good at," said John Webb, director of Teacher Prep. "He weaves a kind of magic with the teachers. And he and Ilene work very well together."
The seminars grew out of Teacher Prep's three-year-old Teachers as Scholars initiative, which brings 80 teachers from 13 local school districts to the Princeton campus each year to attend workshops with faculty members in a variety of disciplines. More than a dozen faculty members participate in the seminars, which meet as many as four times in a semester.
Teachers as Scholars participants asked for more science seminars, said Webb, so the Teacher Prep staff used a grant from the Ernest Christian Klipstein Foundation to develop the science seminars with Lemonick and Levine. As a new twist, they brought the program to the schools. The first session took place in the East Windsor School District and the second was in the Crossroads Middle School in South Brunswick.
Webb said that going to the schools underscored the program's commitment to participating in the area's schools and communicated to students in the schools that their teachers also engaged in learning. "And it worked," he said. "When we were out in the courtyard working with our sky domes, students came over and asked what we were doing."
At the South Brunswick session, Lemonick started with a discussion of Galileo and told the story of how scientists through the ages have leveraged hard-won bits of evidence to build a deep understanding of the universe.
Ancient scientists, he explained, divided the cosmos into "down here" where things were messy and imperfect and "up there" where everything was perfect and geometric. Galileo, working with the crudest of instruments by today's standards, was among the first to replace wishful thinking with hard facts.
"He looked at the sun and it was dirty," said Lemonick. "It had spots, and they moved. They moved! So the sun was not perfect at all.
"He shattered this universe, and he did it with a telescope," he said. "Every technical development showed astronomers a universe that they could not have possibly imagined."
And with that, Lemonick and Levine divided the teachers into small groups and handed out kits from which the teachers built their own telescopes from cardboard tubes and plastic lenses. Later, as the teachers struggled to use their scopes to discern an exit sign at the end of the hall, Lemonick noted that Galileo's lenses were not much more powerful than the ones they were using.
"I don't know, Aaron," said Erin Harsell of the Montgomery Township School District, as she fiddled with her cardboard tube. "I don't know how he did it. It takes a lot of patience!"
In the afternoon, Levine set up a clear plastic dome outside and showed the teachers how they could use it in a yearlong project to track the motion of the sun and predict the dates of solstices and equinoxes.
For Joseph Trybulski, who supervises the science program for Hillsborough Township and its 36 middle and high school science teachers, such demonstrations were very valuable. "It inspired me to put together some resources that teachers in the department can use," said Trybulski.
For many teachers, it was the combination of big-picture questions and hands-on examples that made the seminar appealing. What impressed Volpe was not a particular answer to his big question about truth, but the way in which the seminar helped him think about it. "This program gives you an opportunity to think without too much pressure," he said.
Editor: Ruth Stevens