As fellows, we are asked to bring context and perspective from our graduate experience into the K-12 classroom. The intent is that the overall experience will assist in improving our ability to connect with undergraduates and become more effective educators in the academic arena. As a returning fellow (3rd time around), I have seen this take shape over a number of trails in multiple contexts. It has been interesting to observe both the expected outcomes and unexpected surprises of these attempts. Surprisingly through different years in the program my experiences have been widely different (both within the group of fellows and in the actual program).
The initial fellowship period, put me in the middle school classroom for the first time since I was a student in middle school myself. It was interesting to observe how many things changed along with many of the things that stayed the same. Being in an urban middle school was a bit of a change, but I found a bright and engaged group of kids. As I spent the year adjusting to the rhythms of the classroom, I began to refine my approach of explaining my research. Further I found that being a trained engineer allowed a variety of examples and texture to be added to a wide breadth of discussions in the natural science classroom. By the conclusion of the first term in the program, my partner teacher and I were able to start building a context around water quality as the focus of inquiry. I had been able to affect the perspective of how an engineers/scientist spent their day (and what one might look like). Most surprisingly I was able to engage the kids in a discussion around energy based on the work I was doing in biofuels at the time. Although I was not able to achieve some of the things that I had set out to accomplish, my outlook had been tempered by an actual view of the inter-workings of a classroom and my ability to connect with school children at the middle school level was greatly strengthened.
The second fellowship experience, I focused on making my efforts sustainable. Quickly I realized that my tenure in the classroom was designed as a temporary exercise. As such, it was my intent to put the resources and a base of experience in place for an ongoing program. The area of water quality continued to be a focusing topic and we were able to connect with an organization that conducted water quality testing to give the students a foundation upon which to begin to construct a context. The most surprising component of this process was the roles that were played by my partner teacher and her administration. Building an ongoing program, especially in a resource constrained scenario, can be a delicate balancing act. Many of the activities like going to a local creek or scheduling concurrently with various testing and other school activities were surprising stumbling blocks. However, with the determination of my partner teacher we were able to start laying the foundation for a program that allowed urban middle school students to ask and answer their own questions around the topic of water quality.
This year marks my 3rd fellowship period. After two fellowships spent in a middle school, I am now in a high school setting. Further the partner teacher that I have paired with has been running a research group that aims to isolate and identify methanotrophic bacteria in their local environment. This scenario represents a significant departure from my previous experiences. Some of the topics that we have already started to address are best practices for managing a research group (communications, funding …). This experience is part of the experience that a junior faculty member may see in starting their own research program. I am looking forward to this fellowship experience as it will build on some of strengths gained in the program and continue to expand my capabilities.
My previous experiences have challenged me to think about effective communications, program sustainability and connecting students with representative real world applications for context. In this term I will support the development of a research program in a high school that aims at generating work that will identify and understand the methanotrophic organisms in the local environment. Thinking back on this sequence of experience, I can’t help but see the similarity to the journey that a teacher might take on the way toward implementing project based instruction that will eventually lead to the genesis of interesting questions. It is my hope that having had this context will enable me to support the further development of the research program with my partner teacher. Over the next several months, I will continue to blog about my progress and developments. The next blog will expand on my experience in the high school this year and provide some background on the focus of my research.