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Inside this issue:

Helping Teachers Teach: A Learner-Centered Approach to Professional Development

A Place of Their Own

Extraordinary Environments: Sharing Science with Teachers

Informal Meets Formal: Museum Educators and Communities of Practice

A Teacher's Story

Standards-Based Testing: Obstacle or Opportunity?

Content Counts: Teacher-Led Curriculum Projects

Sign On for Science: Online Support for Teachers

Personal Connections: Building Scientist/Teacher Partnerships


Browse Back Issues ASTC Dimensions: Nov/December 2002
November/December 2002:
Connecting Teachers and Science
Helping Teachers Teach: A Learner-Centered Approach to Professional Development

By Lee Schmitt

It began with a casual query at a teacher conference. It was March 1994, and 100 physical science teachers from around the state were meeting at the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM), in St. Paul. At the time, SMM hosted four teacher conferences a year, in partnership with the Minnesota Science Teachers Association (MnSTA).

John Olson, a member of the conference organizing committee (and later a nominee for ASTC's Honor Roll of Teachers), pulled me aside after one of the sessions. "Our school board just passed a resolution that requires geologic time, paleontology, and evolution to be introduced to students in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades," he said. "Our district's curriculum team needs to develop a plan and train a lot of teachers. Can the science museum help?"

It was the first time that SMM had been formally asked to serve as a school district's partner in an education initiative. Within months, SMM Teacher Programs had contracted to present three weeklong institutes for educators from the St. Paul Public Schools. Participants in that first summer program, Life Through the Ages, compared chicken bones to dinosaur mounts at the museum, experienced hands-on investigations, interacted with paleontologists, hunted fossils, focused their understanding of biological evolution, and planned for the integration of new topics into their science curricula.

After that summer, we never looked back. Life Through the Ages was repeated for two more years, eventually giving way to new topics. Today, in the course of a typical year, SMM Teacher Programs provides 10 to 14 contracted and grant-funded summer programs, six discipline-specific conferences, more than 60 workshops requested by individual schools, and as many as five extended projects working directly with teachers in the classroom. This article will highlight what we've learned in the past decade and offer some pointers for museums looking to upgrade their teacher programs.

Understanding the teacher audience

At SMM, a major focus of our programs for educators is how to use museum resources as an integral part of classroom curriculum. Teachers may not realize the many ways that museums and science centers can support almost any science topic. Such resources include not only exhibits, specimens, and artifacts, but also access to scientists, teaching materials, and professionals who can help plan field trips, answer questions, and design and present professional development. Every SMM program for teachers demonstrates both the powerful enrichment value of an informal institution and the effective use of museum resources.

  Photo of men and women looking at map
In an earth sciences workshop offered by the Science Museum of Minnesota, teachers learn strategies for using the "outdoor classroom."
Photo courtesy SMM

To be successful in working with teachers and schools, your museum staff must speak their language and understand their needs. You must become conversant with state and national standards, assessments, current educational research, and classroom pedagogy, and design your programs to meet the needs of diverse teacher audiences.

Before you start, ask yourselves these questions: Where and what does this group of teachers teach? What are the ages and backgrounds of their students? What are the teachers' backgrounds? What is the political environment of the school? What are the specific needs of the curriculum? Most importantly, how can we best present science content to adult learners while modeling the teaching strategies we want them to use with their students?

Building successful programs

In every workshop or institute offered by SMM Teacher Programs, we strive to include six elements:

  • extended programming

  • inquiry modeling

  • classroom focus

  • time for reflection

  • real-world applications

  • curriculum development.

The ideal teacher institute meets for 10 consecutive days and includes at least two follow-up workshops during the school year. This extended time frame allows teachers room to build sustainable networks, process new information, practice new teaching strategies, and plan for direct implementation into their curriculum and classroom practice.

Inquiry is a complex approach to science that takes time to learn. If teachers are to use the process effectively with students, they must be immersed in it themselves. We model inquiry strategies in every teacher program. Participants learn content and skills through the process of discovery and through framing their own questions.

All of our workshops and institutes are built around the practical needs of the classroom. Before anything else, we are teachers helping teachers teach. Yes, we discuss educational philosophy, research, and standards, but we also talk about what those things mean when you are face-to-face with 35 students: How does this apply to your classroom? Why is it important to you as an educator? How will it affect your students' achievement? Teachers know that our programs have value and direct relevance to their work.

Reflective practice is a key to professional growth. To better understand their teaching and the learning styles of their students, teachers need to reflect on their own learning. In our workshops, every learning situation is processed thoroughly. We ask teachers to wear their student hats while we explore science content, and then ask them to put on their teacher hats to think about the investigation: What did you learn? How was the investigation managed? What would you change if you did this with your students? Why? What did we do for assessment? What is the scope and sequence used for this program? Educators enjoy the opportunity to analyze a learning situation and go behind the scenes on the planning and presentation.

Photo of teachers working in groups
Teachers work in groups to transform what they've learned into classroom curriculum.
Photo courtesy SMM

The ideal program also includes some kind of reality check. Whenever possible, we arrange a field trip to a local research-based business where teachers can experience a direct application of the science they teach. Inevitably, teachers discover here why students need to develop inquiry process skills.

A key part of working with teachers is making the leap to practical curriculum integration. Every teacher who attends one of our workshops takes home a product. Participants work in cooperative groups to plan the direct implementation of their ideas and discoveries and use a template to outline their plans for incorporating new topics, themes, or content into their curriculum. We also often provide up to $100 per teacher toward the purchase of supplies for student investigations.

Marketing your programs

At SMM, our marketing philosophy is simple. It's all about connections-about developing a professional network with teachers, school administrators, state education organizations, higher education, and our own museum staff.

We don't send out flyers listing upcoming workshops and hope that teachers will register. Rather, we use our connections to market programs directly to school district administrators and staff development committees. This allows us to tailor programs to individual needs and be involved in a school's professional development planning over several years.

SMM continues to host conferences for teachers. Along with exhibition and film previews, these events make us visible to schools, foster a sense of comfort with the museum, and help participants become familiar with available resources.
Like many ASTC members,

SMM has built a reputation for high-quality, sustained, teacher-focused professional development. As a result of our many collaborations, staff from SMM Teacher Programs now serve on the MnSTA Board of Directors and the St. Paul Schools Science Advisory Committee. We also act as state coordinators for the Minnesota network of Building a Presence for Science, the new systemic-reform initiative of the National Science Teachers Association.

A bonus for the museum is that by actively representing our mission of inviting learners of all ages to experience their changing world through science, SMM Teacher Programs serve the entire institution. Classroom teachers interact with hundreds of thousands of students and parents, providing a vital bridge to the public understanding of science. They are an essential link in expanding science center and museum audiences.

Meeting new challenges

Education does not stand still. Local politics, national policy, economics, and social perspectives affect what goes on in our schools. With passage of the No Child Left Behind legislation by the U.S. Congress in 2001, the Eisenhower funds that once helped sustain professional development in science teaching are gone. Schools still receive professional development funding under the Title II Improving Teacher Quality Act, but these funds are not designated specifically for science and math.

It remains to be seen what effect this will have on teacher professional development programs at science centers and museums. At SMM, we will be working with our education partners to maintain programs for teachers while creating new products to meet schools' changing needs. The professional development bridge that connects teachers to science centers may have lost its traditional source of funding, but we hope the infrastructure supporting it will be strong enough to weather the change.

Lee Schmitt is director of SMM Teacher Programs at the Science Museum of Minnesota; team members include Nils Halker and Dawn Cameron. To learn more, visit, or write to


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