Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

Engineering a Dynamic Science Learning Environment for K-12 Teachers

Academic journal article Teacher Education Quarterly

Engineering a Dynamic Science Learning Environment for K-12 Teachers

Article excerpt

Teachers are eager learners and participants when professional development opportunities are relevant to their personal interests, classroom needs, or both (Basista & Mathews, 2002; Gordon, 2004). However, it is often difficult for teachers to translate professional development concepts to the classroom in a way that meets their students' needs (Duffy, 2004; Gordon, 2004). In-depth research on teachers' professional experiences is essential to identify the features that most effectively promote outcomes that address both student and teacher needs (Westerlund, Garcia, Koke, Taylor, & Mason, 2002). Such research can contribute to a clearer understanding of how learning environments interact with individual and group differences to optimize design of existing and future opportunities (Duke, 2004; Westerlund, et al, 2002).

The present study follows a cohort of 17 K-12 teachers through a six-week resident learning experience in science and engineering, and on into the planning and implementation of applications for their classrooms. This Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program was examined using the strategic approach of design-based research, with its fluid, adaptive management of the complexity of authentic learning in situ and its attentive documentation of expected and unexpected events, in process and products, to capture the richness of teachers' and mentors' experiences.


The design-based research approach used in this study considered multiple elements of teacher learning and transfer in order to obtain a rich and complex data set. Research on effective teacher professional development, adult learning, situated cognition, and learning transfer were utilized to inform the evaluation design. Teachers' and mentors' perceptions of their experience were essential in this study and the data collection was structured to meaningfully include these factors.

Teacher Professional Learning

Effective teacher professional development should: (1) include well-defined theory in teaching and learning; (2) build in-depth knowledge and skills; (3) model strategies; (4) build learning community; (5) support teachers' leadership; (6) link to larger educational communities; and (7) be continually reassessed for improvements (Bell & Gilbert, 1996; Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999; Wilson & Berne, 1999). In order to promote substantive changes in teaching practice, educators need opportunities to study both content and pedagogy (Berliner, 1991; Branscomb, 1993; Wilson & Berne, 1999) and to engage actively in situations merging content with meaningful learning contexts (Bybee & Loucks-Horsley, 2000; Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, & Yoon, 2001). However, few teacher professional development opportunities integrate these important design features (Westerlund et al., 2002; Wilson & Berne, 1999). The RET program is designed to address many of these requirements by offering teachers an opportunity to participate in authentic research experiences and then translate them into classroom practice.

During the six-week RET summer experience, teachers work in small groups of four to six with a university research mentor to answer testable questions related to specific engineering disciplines. They are asked to turn what they learn into classroom activities that will increase their students' understanding of concepts they regularly teach. The teachers are offered an opportunity to write proposals to receive funding for classroom materials related to the activities they create in order to encourage full participation.

Teacher professional development couched in authentic field experience can promote knowledge and skill development for teachers, especially when collegiality and communication between scientists and teachers are high (Dresner, 2002; Dresner & Worley, 2006; Westerlund et al., 2002). Summer institutes such as the RET, outside of teachers' daily professional contexts, offer in-depth learning opportunities and promote collegial sharing (Basista & Mathews 2002; Keyser,1997). …

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