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Innovative Learning and Teaching Inspires the Next Generation of Scientists
Posted By Jason On March 9, 2012 @ 4:40 pm In Features | No Comments
By Catherine Probst Ferraro
One of the leading science educators in Virginia, Donna R. Sterling, professor of science education in Mason’s College of Education and Human Development , has taken on quite a few roles during her career. And this research scientist turned educator isn’t finished yet.
Before coming to Mason in 1993, Sterling worked with Linus Pauling, one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century. She later traveled the world—from Bangkok, Thailand, to Bedford, Massachusetts—teaching science and mathematics, and working on other kindergarten through graduate school level education projects.
Over the years, Sterling’s research interests have evolved and now span many areas, including professional development for teachers; effective teaching and learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects; and leadership in science education.
Sterling’s latest endeavor—the Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement (VISTA) project —is the culmination of all her prior work. A $28.5 million Investing in Innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education funds the five-year project. Partnering with 47 Virginia school districts, six universities, and the Virginia Department of Education, VISTA focuses on high-need (meaning high-poverty and high-minority) schools to improve science teaching and student learning throughout the commonwealth.
“The VISTA project will help address two fundamental [issues] in Virginia: elementary school teachers who lack a solid grounding in the inquiry-based nature of science and secondary-level teacher shortages that have led to the hiring of uncertified teachers,” says Sterling.
The VISTA program builds on prior research and active-learning programs conducted in the college and the Center for Restructuring Education in Science and Technology  (CREST) over the past 15 years. Sterling, who founded CREST shortly after coming to Mason, is the center’s director. CREST provides support for teachers to enhance their knowledge of STEM concepts and shows them fun ways to teach science to their students. Through CREST, Sterling has received funding for nearly 30 projects.
Two of the center’s most successful programs for improving science teaching have been incorporated into VISTA: summer science camps to engage teachers and students in STEM topics and the New Science Teachers Support Network to assist educators just entering the profession.
Since 1997, summer science camps have been offered at Mason each year for kids in grades five through seven. The two-week camps give kids the opportunity to work as archaeologists, forensic crime solvers, or other creative roles while participating in hands-on activities and experiments using techniques similar to those used by scientists.
“The science camps help address a problem that many teachers face—they want to teach science the same way they learned it,” says Sterling. “Instead, students need to investigate and search for the answers to a scientific problem that extends over an extended period so that their learning becomes more connected to the real world and real problems.”
The second CREST program, the New Science Teachers Support Network , ran from 2003 through 2010 and was funded by the National Science Foundation. When the program was launched, the national shortage of science teachers was at an all-time high. As a result, school districts were hiring teachers with science degrees but little experience in teaching. These teachers, notes Sterling, faced the extra challenge of learning how to teach on their own.
“This is where the [support network] comes into play,” Sterling says. “Research shows that without effective support nearly 66 percent of these new teachers will quit the profession within three years. So we asked ourselves how we could support these teachers and help them succeed.”
Throughout the program, two forms of support proved to be most effective: allowing coaches—retired science teachers—to observe and assist teachers in the classroom, giving immediate feedback on their teaching techniques, and offering science methods courses that teach teachers how to incorporate inquiry-based learning methods in the classroom.
The success of these programs led to Sterling’s current work on the VISTA project, which began in 2010 and works specifically with four groups of science educators: elementary science teachers, new secondary school science teachers, school district science coordinators, and college science education faculty.
“Through the VISTA program, we will be able to reach students and science educators from all over the state,” says Sterling. “By working with our partner universities and school divisions, we can go into the classroom to implement innovative learning and teaching in science education.”
Sterling and her colleagues have already completed several professional development and leadership training programs. More than 21 science coordinators and college faculty participated in science academies where they learned science education leadership skills. In addition, more than 50 teachers and 60 elementary students participated in science institutes where they worked collaboratively to learn a particular area of science with scientists from around Virginia. At a two-week summer camp, teachers worked with students on problem-based learning. Also, secondary school science teachers began a two-year professional development program where they will take graduate courses in educational methods and receive coaching during the academic year.
As the VISTA program’s first year comes to a close, Sterling already sees great progress in educating the next generation of scientists. “One of my philosophies is continuous
Improvement, and VISTA truly has the potential to make a huge change in the field of science education in how and what students are learning.”
VISTA is a public–private partnership. In addition to $28.5 million from the U.S. Department of Education, an additional $5.7 million (20 percent) from private sources supports the project. Private sponsors include Boeing, Dominion Foundation, Google, IBM, Micron Foundation, Northrup Grumman, ExploreLearning, and the Virginia Association of Science Teachers.
Article printed from Mason Research: http://masonresearch.gmu.edu
URL to article: http://masonresearch.gmu.edu/2012/03/innovative-learning-and-teaching-inspires-the-next-generation-of-scientists/
URLs in this post:
 Image: http://masonresearch.gmu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/sterling.jpg
 College of Education and Human Development: http://cehd.gmu.edu/
 Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement (VISTA) project: http://vista.gmu.edu/
 Center for Restructuring Education in Science and Technology: http://cehd.gmu.edu/crest/
 Image: http://masonresearch.gmu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/vista.jpg
 New Science Teachers Support Network: http://cehd.gmu.edu/crest/researchprograms/nstsn/
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