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Teaching the Teachers Webcast Transcript


MARIA ZACHARIAS: I'm Maria Zacharias of the National Science Foundation. When President Obama spoke at the National Academy of Sciences back in April, he said we know that the quality of math and science teachers is the most influential single factor in determining whether a student will succeed or fail in these subjects. It stands to reason that giving science teachers the chance to do research in a lab would give them a deeper understanding of their subject and enhance the hands-on teaching of science in their classrooms. A new study of science teachers' research experiences and student results over time shows that what the teachers learn can also have a direct impact on student performance. The study, published in the October 16th issue of Science magazine, also shows the economic benefits of making this kind of experience available to teachers. With me today is the lead author of this study, Dr. Samuel Silverstein of Columbia University's Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics, and the founder of the Columbia University Summer Research program. Before we get the webcast going, I'd like to ask any reporter who has a question at any time during the webcast to dial *1, and if you're tuning in on the Web, you can email your question to webcast@nsf.gov.

Now, Sam, research experiences have been available to science teachers for years. Why haven't we seen more results linking the teachers' experience to improve student achievement?

DR. SAM SILVERSTEIN: I think there are three fundamental reasons. First of all, science work experience programs for teachers or research experience programs for teachers are rarely funded for a significant period of time. Foundations and government agencies fund these programs for two, three, or four years and then stop their funding. So, there's not a long breadth of time to have many teachers go through the program. Secondly, the funders rarely provide the kind of support that is necessary in order for these programs to do the kinds of evaluation, in-depth evaluation, that's necessary to find out what's going on. And third, it takes several years for a teacher who learns new teaching techniques and who learns to use new equipment and new devices in the classroom to actually implement that in the classroom and implement it successfully. And so, many of these programs may have been more successful than we know, but the evaluation didn't go on for long enough. You'll notice in the Science paper that the data only becomes statistically significant in the third and fourth years after teachers complete the program. Now, we see incremental differences in the first and second years after entering the program, and the third and fourth years after entering the program are where the statistically significant outcome data are found.

MARIA ZACHARIAS: Good. I want to remind reporters, anyone with a question on the phone, dial *1. Emailed questions can be sent to webcast@nsf.gov.

This program is designed as a two-year program where the teachers actually come for two successive summers. Why is that?


DR. SAM SILVERSTEIN: There are really four reasons for that. The first is that time on task is important. We know that one-day professional development experiences rarely accomplish anything. Significant time on task is needed to help teachers really understand the practice of science. Secondly, we know that teachers -- rather, that students who come to our labs for a summer, that's a nice experience, but if the student knows and the faculty member knows that the student can come back a second summer if the student does a good job, and the student understands that as well, each is likely to make a much greater commitment to the other. The third reason is because first-year teachers find coming into a research laboratory quite intimidating, and having second-year teachers available to counsel them, to encourage them, and, frankly, to provide some standards because they, themselves, have been first-year teachers and now they're upperclassmen, if I may call them that, that is a very encouraging and supportive help. And, finally, we wanted teachers to get a sense of the trajectory of a research project and the trajectory of a researcher, for instance, a graduate student. All of these teachers are high-school teachers. They're advising students, and they need to have a sense of how a graduate student in biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy progresses through his or her research career. By having them come back a second summer to the same laboratory, they see the development of a student and they see the development of a research project, which may make very little progress in the eight weeks they're there, but when they come back the second summer, over the intervening ten months, a great deal of progress may have been made and now they understand much better that trajectory.

MARIA ZACHARIAS: Now, you've had this program in place since 1990 and I gather that about 250 teachers have participated with about 200 different members of Columbia's faculty, and it sounds like almost a one-to-one relationship. Are the faculty mentors not wanting to take on more than one teacher?


DR. SAM SILVERSTEIN: No, no, far from it. I have never called a faculty member at Columbia and told them about this program and had other than, "Gee, I didn't know about that. That sounds terrific. I'd be glad to talk with the teacher." What we use in this program is all the resources of Columbia University. I'm a medical school professor, but we have teachers who teach earth science, we have teachers who teach chemistry, physics, do astronomy, do various kinds of technologies in their schools, and so we distribute these teachers to research laboratories in engineering at Lamont Geological Observatory, in the biology department, in the Mailman School of Public Health, all over the university. So, actually, the fact that I call a faculty member is a kind of compliment to the faculty member because it means I think a lot of them, their reputation is very good and I encourage them to take a teacher. There are a number of faculty members who've had two, three and four teachers successively in their labs, but we try not to overburden the faculty and we try and do this in a distributive way and do it in a way that accommodates the needs of teachers. When we interview teachers to come into the program, we generally ask them, "What is it you're most interested in learning about," because it's those things that you're most interested in learning about that you're likely to invest in. And then we have them interview with faculty to be sure they and the faculty member will get along and share common interests, and we don't make a lab assignment until the faculty member and the teacher both say, "Yes, we'd like to work together."

MARIA ZACHARIAS: Well, I'm going to ask you for some examples in a moment, but I just remind reporters on the phone who have a question to dial *1, and anyone who'd like to email a question can do so at webcast@nsf.gov.

So, give me some examples. I'm a New York City middle-school science teacher. What kind of research experiences might I have through your program?


DR. SAM SILVERSTEIN: Well, we had a Jesuit brother teaching at a public school on the west side who was a wonderful mathematician, and he taught earth science and so he went to Lamont Geological Observatory where they used fractal mathematics and chaotic mathematics to try and explore how the crust fractures, and he spent two summers and actually was the co-author of a paper. We had another teacher who was quite gifted in programming. She went to the astronomy department where they assigned her the problem of overlaying the radio telescope sky with the visible sky so you could see where they radio telescope sources are and correlating them with the light sources. They assigned her a piece of sky and she thought to herself, "Gee, you know, I could design a program that would just routinely do this," and so in a month, she had a program. She went to the faculty member and said, "Well, I've not only tracked this piece of sky, but here are three other pieces and by the end of the summer, I can do a lot more." We've had teachers working, for instance, with Howard Shuman in our department of microbiology and Howard was looking for a bacteria that parasitized amoeba. Actually, he works on Legionnaires Disease bacteria, bacteria I've had experience with myself, and what he wanted to know was, are all amoebas sensitive to Legionella, does Legionella grow in all amoeba or could he find amoeba that were resistant to Legionella? And, of course, in the screening process, they did, indeed, isolate a amoeba that is resistant to Legionella. This last summer, we had a teacher who was interested in forensics and so Wendy Chung, in our genetics group said if you're really interested in forensics, I have a friend in the Medical Examiner's office in New York City. The Medical Examiner's office is CSI writ large, and so he went to the Medical Examiner's office and worked on how they use DNA and DNA sequences to track criminals, and next summer, he's going to be back doing much more sophisticated molecular biology. I can go on and on and on, but you begin to get the gist of this. I've had teachers in my own lab who've worked on white cells and immune defenses and who learn a great deal about white cells, but I think there's an important point here, if I may take a minute more in explaining this. The important point is not that the teachers acquire specific information about Legionella and amoeba, or white cells and immune defenses because there can't possibly be enough questions on the living environment examination or the chemistry examination or the earth science examination for them to have learned enough about that specific area to contribute to why their students are doing better. It has to be that what they learn are generic things about doing science, about the importance of doing hands-on science, about the importance of understanding the technologies of science so you can actually ask yourself, "Gee, if I had to solve that question or problem, what technologies would I use? How would I prove that?" It has to be that they learn a new way of responding to students, and so one thing they say to us in this process is, "When I go back to my school, I'm going to stop saying 'that's right and that's wrong,' because none of you asked me questions where you want yes/no answers. I'm going to say, 'Why do you think that?' because that's what you really care about. You want to know why I think I should do X, Y, or Z." And the other thing they say is, "When I go back to my school, if I'm not absolutely certain of an answer, what I'm going to do is say, 'Gee, that's a good question. I don't know that answer really well. How about if I help you and you and I find out the answer together?'" That says to the student, "You stumped the teacher," and it also says to the student, "Gee, the teacher is interested enough to work with me as an individual and help me find out the answer."

MARIA ZACHARIAS: Very interesting. Early on, we talked about why we haven't seen more results linking teachers' experiences to improved student achievement. Some of the people on the line hadn't heard it so if you could address that a little bit. Why haven't we seen more studies like this one that's appearing in Science tomorrow?


DR. SAM SILVERSTEIN: Well, I said three things to summarize. I said that funders rarely fund programs for long enough so that many programs, research experience programs, for teachers run for three or four years and then they run out of funding and they stop. They're discontinuous. We've been in business for 20 years and we hope to be doing this for long after I pass this Earth. Secondly, rarely do funders provide enough money for evaluation. We have been raising money for evaluation, independently of doing the research, for many years because we understood that if we're spending other people's money, we ought to find out what good is it doing, and the good we want it to do is to improve student achievement. And finally, we know that it takes several years for a teacher who learns something to actually be able to do it well in their classrooms and to use the technology effectively, and so maybe in the first year they implement the things they thought would work, but they don't work so well in their classes, and so they adapt them, they come back for the second summer, their colleagues critique them and now they go back and they do it better, and that's actually what the paper shows. Figure 1 in the paper shows incremental growth over four years in teacher-student achievement. So, I think that, to sum all this up, there probably are a lot more successes out there from real in-depth teacher professional development, one-summer and two-summer-long experiences, but no one has stayed the course long enough to prove it. Let me just say one more thing about this. Teachers change schools very frequently. There's great instability in the public schools. In order for us to get 32 cases where the same teacher was in the same school for five consecutive years, the year before coming into program and four years after entry, we had 95 teachers eligible for the study, but only 32 were actually able to participate because of this revolving door practice in schools. That instability harms schools, harms kids. We need to try and have much more stable schools.

MARIA ZACHARIAS: Good. We have an email question from Brady Matheny of the NIH. He's asking whether you have any data on how many students of teachers who participated in your research program went on to college.


DR. SAM SILVERSTEIN: I wish I had such data. We do not have -- there were more than 7,000 children who were in the classes of the experimental group of teachers and we know that the 95 teachers, high-school teachers, who were eligible for the study taught more than 28,000 children, but we don't have individual tracking statistics. That's something we would very much like to do in the next few years of this program. That's an essential piece of research that Mr. Matheny is asking about because if more children graduate from high school or the cost benefit of this program goes from $1.14 for every dollar our sponsors put into it to over $10.00 for every dollar our sponsors put into it. Graduation from high school, is a very important event.

MARIA ZACHARIAS: Talk about money because when you were giving your examples about what the teachers got to do, it's fabulous and you'd want -- I have children and I'd want every science teacher doing that, and so I understand that the two-summer program costs upwards of $27,000, which seems expensive. So, how to defend that cost?


DR. SAM SILVERSTEIN: Well, let's put it in terms of what does it cost per child per year. The average science teacher teaches 100 children per year. If you recognize that these teachers are not dropping out of science or out of teaching, the dropout rate is only 2 percent a year, which is much lower than the national dropout from teaching for experienced teachers. That means that these teachers are going to be teaching for five years, at least five years after they enter the program. That's 500 children. If you divide 500 children into the cost of the program, you'll find it's about $55 a child. You know, that's about the cost of a textbook. Is $55 a child a big hit when you consider that that child is 10 percent more likely to pass a science examination than was true without a teacher with these skills? I think not. And then, on the macro scale, I just told you that when we look at the increased pass rate of students, this 10 percent increase, that means that many fewer students have to repeat courses, go to summer schools and retake tests, and I've told you teacher retention is better. When you add all that up, in the first four years after entry, this program returns to the New York City Department of Education $1.14 for every dollar our sponsors put into it. That means you're getting all the benefits of education and you're still making money. You make $.14 if the Department of Education was paying for it. We actually suspect it's more than that because these teachers are staying in education more than four years. So, I've related it to the cost of a textbook and the cost per child. I've told you what the difference is if the teacher stays in only for four years, and then finally, if 10 percent more of the additional 10 percent are graduating from high school, I've told you that then the program cost benefit analysis shows that it's $10.00 -- more than $10.00 for every dollar our sponsors put into it. I think it's a very important thing to emphasize that Matheny's question really gets at the core of this issue, and the core is that high-school graduation rates in our inner-cities in the United States, in the 50 largest cities, is only around 50 percent. That is a tragedy. It's not just bad; it is a tragedy. We need to do something to bring up high-school graduation rates to well over 80 percent. They've been stuck at 70 percent in this country for more than 20 years, and we can't do it unless we do something about the graduation rates in the 50 largest cities in this country. Science is one of the least frequently passed courses in New York City and New York State, and this is a way to increase the pass rate. I think it's not unreasonable to expect that when more children are passing a Regents exam in science, some percentage of them are more likely to graduate from high school. We need to find out how many more.

MARIA ZACHARIAS: Good. Let me pause for a moment and remind reporters on the phone that if you have a question, please dial *1, and you can email questions to webcast@nsf.gov. So, in talking to you, I think to myself, "How did a professor in medical school, how did you happen to start this summer program for middle-school and high-school science teachers?"


DR. SAM SILVERSTEIN: I began by -- I was then a faculty -- in 1982, I was a faculty member at the Rockefeller University and I gave what are called the Christmas lectures. Those are lectures for high-school students that the faculty at Rockefeller give between Christmas and New Years, and they're modeled on the Christmas lectures that Faraday gave at the Royal Society in England in the 19th century in order to help support the Royal Society. Teachers came up to me after each of my lectures and asked me how I did one or another demonstration, and from their questions, it was evident that they were not familiar with contemporary techniques in cell biology. Many of them were life science teachers. And so, I asked my friends, "How long after you left your law firm, your engineering firm, your architecture firm do you think you could be contemporary with your profession?" And most of them said five years at most, and I agreed with them. In terms of laboratory science, if I left the lab for five years, I would be out of date. Well, most teachers finish their teacher education and begin teaching. It takes them two or three years to learn really how to manage a curriculum in a classroom. By then, they're three years out of their education, two years more and they're at the -- they're over the cliff. And so, I said to myself, "Well, there's a simple way to solve this problem. We'll use the existing faculty and the existing resources of a university, bring teachers in and have them work during the summer with faculty and with graduate students and with staff, and they'll reacquaint themselves with all of the technologies and techniques being used and concepts being used in contemporary science," and when I moved to Columbia University, this was an ideal place to do that because I had not only medical sciences and a small number of physicists and chemists, I had an entire university with all of the resources of a great research university available. This can be done in many places in the United States. There are many, many universities that have similar kinds of resources. So, this is not something that's unique to Columbia and there's nothing unique about what I've done in this program. Essentially, it's relied on the brilliance of the faculty of this university and the quality of the faculty of this university, and I have confidence in my colleagues all over the country to do the same thing.

MARIA ZACHARIAS: Great. Well, we're going to wrap the webcast today, but this is a very exciting project to hear about, and again, Dr. Silverstein's study can be seen in tomorrow's issue, or the October 16th issue, of Science magazine. We appreciate your being here with us today, and look for more information on this study at NSF.gov. Dr. Silverstein, thanks so much.

DR. SAM SILVERSTEIN: Let me say one more thing, if I may.

MARIA ZACHARIAS: Yes, go ahead.


DR. SAM SILVERSTEIN: There's lots of information that's not in the paper or the supplementary materials, and I'd be glad to provide that to any reporter who would like that information or expand on the citations in the paper or to help them locate data if they want to find it. And the second thing I'd like to comment on is that this kind of a program, I said just a moment ago, could easily be implemented all over the country in medical schools and universities, in research institutes. This program resembles a training grant that's developed by the NIH where the NIH provides a medical school or a biology institute with money so that many faculties can collaborate on a problem and train students in an interdisciplinary way. We do exactly the same thing with funds that are given us to train teachers here at Columbia. This is a big training grant, essentially, assembled from many grants from foundations and government sources. This can be done all over the country. I'm hopeful that people will take this data, these data and say to themselves, "Gee, we'd like to do this here."

MARIA ZACHARIAS: Very good. Well, thanks so much for joining us and giving us the details about the report. It's very exciting.

DR. SAM SILVERSTEIN: Thank you very much.

MARIA ZACHARIAS: Thank you. Goodbye.



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