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Did Dinosaurs Fly?: College of Education has winning formula for training 8,000 Texas science teachers

It’s a Friday, and the class is a little bit rowdy.

The science lesson today is on dinosaurs, and the students are eager to know more, sitting on their knees to get a better view of the Alamosaurus sanjuanensis and the Tyrannosaurus rex, clapping when a fellow student correctly answers, “No, dinos do not live in the air, and they don’t fly.”

In a few moments they will be ushered outside to dig in the “dino pit,” a sandy area with “fossils” where they can exercise the archaeological skills they have learned and experience firsthand what has been discussed in the classroom. Meanwhile, a request from the teacher for elaboration on the traits of true dinosaurs is met with an ear-splitting chorus of, “Oh, oh, oh! I know, I know what makes a dinosaur a dinosaur!” and a dozen flapping, raised hands.

Students use microscopes during a science lesson
Science teachers in the collaboratives focus on experiential learning and implement hands-on activities in the classroom.

Photo: Lisa Anderson, Redwater ISD

One student twists her wedding ring and pushes her reading glasses farther up her nose as she studies a laminated card filled with information about the Acrocanthosaurus, an enormous predator that roamed Zilker Park during the Mesozoic Era. Her gray-haired neighbor shouts out the answer to the teacher’s question, and they exchange a high-five.

The energetic, very vocal pupils are a group of 30 third- through fifth-grade Central Texas teachers gathered at the Austin Nature and Science Center for a day of sharing, brainstorming and intensive training, courtesy of an innovative 12-year-old program in The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education.

Located in the Center for Science and Mathematics Education, the Texas Regional Collaboratives (TRC) for Excellence in Science Teaching is a network of Texas school districts, universities, education service centers and businesses that have joined forces to provide sustained, intensive professional development and support for Texas science teachers.

Assessment data, as well as input from teachers, testify to the program’s efficacy.

The East Texas Regional Collaborative collected comparative data on the Grade 8 Science Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test and found that teacher participation in the collaborative translated into improved student performance. Students of participating teachers had higher scores on the TAAS test than state and Region 8 averages from 1998-2000, the most current years for which data is available. A study by the Rice University Collaborative of TAAS scores for 1998-99 indicated similar improvement in the Aldine school district, with average Grade 8 Science TAAS test scores for students of participating teachers being 93.1, compared to a state average of 87.1 and district average of 85.6.

Perhaps most impressive is the rise in TRC teachers’ scores on tests of science content knowledge. Between 2002 and 2003, teachers in the TRC improved their science knowledge by an average of 29 points, going from an average score of 54 to 83.

Kamil Jbeily
Dr. Kamil Jbeily

Photo: Marsha Miller

“I have 30 teachers participating this year,” says Haidee Williams, project director for the Region 13 collaborative. “We meet once a month, and during these meetings I get to see just how successful and critical this networking is. The teachers express how much more confidence they have in the classroom because of the content area training they’re getting here, and they share with one another tricks of the trade, things that have worked well for them and other things that have not worked so well. Best of all, they develop relationships that extend beyond these meetings. They stay in contact with one another and end up with a big support system they can draw upon at any time.”

Despite the breadth of the program (it has benefited more than 800,000 students and 8,000 participating science teachers across Texas) and the large number of stakeholders, the fundamental focus and goal of creating better science teachers and leaders has never been lost.

“One of UT’s key initiatives is to improve public education and build K-16 partnerships,” says Dr. Kamil A. Jbeily, director of the TRC. “The collaboratives do precisely that. We’re supported by the Texas Education Agency, the National Science Foundation, private foundations of corporations like SBC and Toyota, by legislators who come to functions that honor the excellent science teachers of Texas, by businesspeople in the regions, by principals who give their teachers opportunities to participate in our professional development training sessions—the group of individuals and organizations who have given of financial and human resources is very large and deeply, deeply appreciated!”

In addition to the support of corporations, policymakers and Texans across the state, another reason the collaboratives have been so successful is due to the flexibility given to each region in developing training.

Before a new year of training begins, each of the 20 regions is consulted and asked to assess its special instructional needs. Some regions look at teacher test scores and student performance and elect to receive training in environmental or earth science, for example. Others may use this opportunity to allow their teachers to pursue master’s level courses in physics and chemistry at an area university.

James Barufaldi
Dr. James Barufaldi

Photo: Marsha Miller

“A region’s project director, along with the region’s instructional team members, which may include master teachers, scientists, mathematicians and science specialists, meet and develop the content that’s delivered in each region,” says Dr. James Barufaldi, director of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education and Ruben E. Hinojosa Regents Professor in Education. “Each region is required to provide at least 105 content instruction hours to the teachers, and we have approximately 22 universities that participate and offer some of the instruction.”

Several times a year the instructional team members and project directors from around the state meet in Austin for professional development academies. These meetings are an opportunity for the leaders to coordinate their efforts and assure that the curriculum is translated in the same manner from region to region.

“When we get this topnotch group together, we do so to make sure we’re staying ‘on the same page’ and maintaining quality control,” says Barufaldi. “We talk about how to use technology in the classroom and how digital cameras can be used as teaching tools, for example, and we decide how we’re going to deliver training to our teachers in the collaboratives. We talk about conceptual physics, lab techniques, new ways to teach physical science. When the instructional teams leave Austin, they take with them an enormous amount to share with their teachers.”

Like the instructional team members, teachers in the regional collaboratives meet frequently during the year as well and engage in activities that will enhance their classroom teaching. In Region 13, where meetings occur once a month, the teachers went to Corpus Christi last summer to study animals’ adaptation to specific habitats. On the trip from Austin, they were able to observe changes in flora and fauna along the way and discuss the relationship between animal life and a specific environment. Once in Corpus Christi, the teachers studied wetlands, barrier islands and the seashore, gathering samples, going out on a boat, taking photos and jotting down notes that could be used to give their classroom lessons immediacy and depth.

For Sue Simpson, a second-year 4th grade teacher at Village Elementary in Georgetown, the trip to Corpus was a wonderful introduction to the collaborative.

Teacher helps student with presentation on bats
Through her participation in the Region 13 collaborative, Sue Simpson will receive about 105 hours of professional development training this year.

“I don’t have a science background,” says Simpson. “What I know about science is what I learned in college, and there are huge knowledge gaps. When I went to Corpus, I was able to see what adaptation to a habitat meant and learn very specific, creative ways to teach the concept of adaptation to my students. I came back from the trip with pictures, anecdotes, samples and two huge tubs of instructional literature. I’m so excited after any session with my collaborative, and it never ceases to make the kids excited as well.”

Recently, Simpson drew upon what she learned in order to fashion a science lesson around bats. Each student was allowed to select a bat that interested them and then was responsible for researching traits of that particular bat, creating a model of the bat, giving a presentation in front of the class and fielding questions from classmates about the bat.

“For their bat projects the students had to employ higher-order thinking skills and evaluate things in terms of relationships,” says Simpson. “They had to pay close attention to how each different bat has adapted to its environment, how the habitat shapes what the bat does and how it affects the way the bats are physically formed. We were able to tie math skills in since the students had to understand ratios in order to construct their bats to scale, and they were required to work with measurements in order to depict the wingspan accurately. Since I joined the collaborative my teaching is much more ‘hands-on,’ and I’m learning great ways to mainstream science into the rest of my lessons.”

Teachers such as Simpson typically spend their first year in a collaborative soaking up all of the tips and training that they can hold and sharpening their leadership skills. If they continue with the collaborative, they sometimes find themselves graduating from the role of student to that of mentor.

Students give presentation on bats for class project
Fourth graders in Sue Simpson’s class learned about adaptation and habitat when they researched bats for a class project.

“We’re always needing great teachers and always coming up short, so, with the collaboratives, we’ve developed a way to grow our own,” says Chris Castillo Comer, Director of Science at the Texas Education Agency and a former teacher and collaborative member. “Many of the teachers who are involved in the collaboratives become mentors, go back to their districts and train several other teachers. The benefit of the collaboratives is greatly extended in that way. I consider this program to be the crown jewel of professional development in Texas—it provides sustained support and follow-up, which is crucial for teacher success.”

The fact that Texas teachers’ success is important is evident in the tangible support that the collaboratives receive from year to year.

“Today’s classrooms hold our future employees, customers and community leaders,” says Jan Newton, President, SBC-Texas. “That alone is sufficient reason to be an active partner in providing our teachers with the tools they need to make that future a bright one.

“SBC is a Texas-based company with employees in almost every community throughout the Lone Star state. It is only natural to partner with a quality organization that shares our reach and our concern for quality education. SBC is proud to work with Dr. Jbeily and the Texas Regional Collaboratives.”

Over the years, SBC has given about $300,000 to the TRC and provided assistance to a number of the regional directors.

In addition, the Texas Education Agency has donated $1.6 million for the training of elementary school teachers. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board issued a $300,000 grant for the development of a physics module that can be used by physics teachers around the state. And the Toyota USA Foundation alone has given $390,000 to enhance the collaboratives’ mentor program through leadership academies.

Robert Mosbacher Sr. at honors ceremony for science teachers
Science teachers in the collaboratives are recognized at honors ceremonies, which are attended by policymakers, fellow educators and businesspersons such as Robert Mosbacher Sr., former U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

“Programs like the Texas Regional Collaboratives for science teachers are essential to helping our teachers better prepare their students for future careers in science and engineering,” says Dennis Cuneo, Toyota Motor North America senior vice president. “Toyota is committed to enhancing the educational experiences of children in grades K-12.”

The Toyota USA Foundation is a $40 million charitable endowment created to support innovative education programs serving kindergarten through 12th grade in the United States, with special emphasis on the areas of mathematics and science.

As an example of how the partnerships benefit all members, Toyota is opening a large plant in San Antonio that will be producing hybrid cars by the year 2006. Many of the students taught by San Antonio-area science teachers who are members of a collaborative will be the future workforce for that plant.

“The regional collaboratives are a prime example of how The University of Texas at Austin is reaching out to the entire state,” says Gwen Grigsby, associate vice president for governmental relations at The University of Texas at Austin and a member of the TRC’s advisory board. “As I spread the word about how much UT does for the people of Texas, the outstanding science teachers that we’re helping and Dr. Jbeily’s excellent work with the collaboratives are always first on my list of examples.”

Although the finer points of pedagogy change and technology render some instructional techniques obsolete, the heart of teaching remains reassuringly the same—skilled, caring, confident teachers produce successful students. As members of the collaboratives, many science teachers are getting reacquainted with a passion that may flag from time to time.

“This is my first year to teach all subjects,” says 4th grade teacher Sue Simpson. “And sometimes I feel very overwhelmed. The collaborative is something I need, not just enjoy, and something that makes me realize that I can do things better and better. It’s hard to describe the feeling you have when you look out into the class at the students and see that change on their faces and know that they ‘get it,’ that what you’re doing is working! I think anyone who teaches knows what I mean.”

Kay Randall

Banner photo: David M. Stephens,
Onion Creek Mosasaur at Texas Memorial Museum

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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