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Making Science Work for Kentucky Teachers

Kentucky science teachers are getting some extra credit, thanks to a University of Kentucky program called Science Works. Since 1994, UK physics professors Sally Kovash and Joe Straley have been working to improve how science is taught by training Kentucky elementary and middle school teachers. Their work is funded by grants from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Education Program and the Department of Energy.

What began as an afternoon workshop session has grown into 24 to 30 hours of teacher training. Now, over 700 teachers in both public and private schools from over 50 Kentucky counties have gone through the training program, which started with the topic "Energy." Kovash and Straley are developing four subtopics as well: "Light," "Temperature and Heat," "Mechanics and Simple Machines," and "Electricity and Magnetism."

"We simply picked good, teachable science. When we looked at the national standards, we discovered we had hit most of them," says Straley.

The standards Straley refers to are set so high on the state science exam that very few students come out looking proficient. One reason for this outcome is that many fourth through seventh grade teachers have a K-8 certification, which does not require specializing in science.

"The standards have changed and even prior to fourth grade teachers are supposed to teach physics," says Kovash. "How can you do that if you've never been taught it yourself? We're trying to make physics accessible to a lot more people."

Teachers attend a workshop where Kovash and Straley discuss teaching methods in general as well as the scientific principles behind the upcoming experiments. Then, the teachers get hands-on experience by conducting experiments with the materials, which consist of such varied items as alligator clips, thermostat coils and plastic drinking birds.

"We send teachers off with a big box of stuff and the confidence that if they let the kids loose on it, something interesting will happen," Straley says.

This kind of training helps teachers guide their students through experiments instead of simply having them read about abstract concepts. The focus isn't on finding one right answer, Kovash says. Many of the activities are open-ended and encourage students to make observations and draw their own conclusions.

"Everyone can do the experiments differently and can get their own answer—and they're all right," Kovash says. "And that's one of the important things about science. You're looking for the process that works for you, the process that gives repeatable answers. We're teaching them to be scientists, not just right-answer-finders."

Feedback from the program has been overwhelmingly positive, with counties all over Kentucky asking the pair to help train their teachers. Straley and Kovash's goals for Science Works include developing a Virtual Workshop CD for teachers, covering even more topics, and eventually reaching teachers in every Kentucky county. The success of Science Works is best measured, however, by the reaction of those directly affected by it.

"Teachers come back and tell us, 'It works in my classroom; my kids like science,'" Kovash says. "Teachers say kids are telling them that science is their favorite subject, that they learn this way and it's much more fun."

Jonathan Riggs