Teachers teach teachers to teach science in Niskayuna

PHOTO BY RYAN ZIDEK
Area teachers attend a workshop taught by science teachers at Niskayuna High School.  Wednesday, July 13, 2016.PHOTO BY RYAN ZIDEK Area teachers attend a workshop taught by science teachers at Niskayuna High School. Wednesday, July 13, 2016.

BY ZACHARY MATSON

Gazette Reporter

— Six activities were set up in different stations across the science classroom. At one station, participants learned about the potential and kinetic energy from a bowling ball swinging on a chain; at another station, they tested how different color filters reduced waves of energy flowing through a solar panel.

A teacher roamed from station to station, answering questions and probing with questions of her own. Everyone answered a series of questions on worksheets as they fiddled over the experiments.

But the students weren’t students at all: they were other teachers, elementary school teachers.

“Well, it went from gravitational potential energy to kinetic energy,” said Niskayuna teacher Amy Isenhart, as she watched the energy of the dangling bowling ball begin to dissipate.

Elementary school teachers, of course, must be masters of all subject areas — everything from reading and writing to stars and planets. But the requirement for breadth cuts into their ability to develop depth in any particular subject. And when it comes to science, teachers may lose track of complicated concepts.

But Niskayuna schools and the Capital Region BOCES are hoping to put science skills at the forefront for elementary teachers with a new professional development workshop launched at Niskayuna High School last week, touted as “deep dive” in new science learning standards.

“I get to focus in on one thing,” said Ballston Spa physics teacher Ankie Meuwissen, one of the program instructors. “They’ve got to know quite a lot about everything they are presenting to their students.”

Over 40 elementary school science teachers, representing kindergarten through fifth-grade classes and districts as far afield as Schodack, Schoharie and Berlin school districts, participated in the workshop that runs Tuesday through Thursday. They hope the program continues to grow in future years.

“It’s one of the first times so many different districts have come together to provide professional development,” said Laura Lehtonen, science program manager for Capital Region BOCES.

The three-day workshop focused on the physical sciences — physics, chemistry, Earth sciences and astronomy. Elementary school teachers are usually more comfortable with biology and life science. Six high school instructors, five from Niskayuna, focused on subjects that elementary teachers have the most difficulty with: matter on day one; energy and energy transformations on day two; and astronomy and the solar system on the last day.

“That’s the biggest area where elementary science teachers don’t have a lot of confidence,” said Jackie Carrese, Niskayuna’s science and technology coordinator, referring to the physical science. “Kids at the elementary level ask these phenomenal out-of-the-box questions, and it’s hard to answer those when you don’t have a solid foundation.”

Carrese said science programs have often lost in priority to English Language Arts and math, even though students often connect more with a hands-on science lesson than learning how to add fractions. And the emphasis that districts and policymakers have put on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields hasn’t trickled down to providing elementary teachers with content support in those areas.

While the emphasis at the elementary school level over the past few years has been on ELA and math — in no small part thanks to statewide assessments — state officials are also expected to approve a new set of elementary-level science standards soon. Those standards will call on students to dig even deeper into complicated science concepts.

“We do energy in third grade and we often get questions that go above and beyond what is in our packets,” Glencliff Elementary third-grade teacher Erin McMahon said. “This helps deepen our understanding of the subjects.”

Do the kids enjoy science time in the class?

“It’s the highlight of their day,” McMahon said.

Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, zmatson@dailygazette.net or@zacharydmatson on Twitter.