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Personal Thoughts of an Intern of the Summer Science Institutes

jpfeiffer's picture

Reflections on the Summer Science Institute

Before the Institute …

When I first inquired about working as an intern with Dr. Grobstein and Wilfred Franklin in the K-12 Pre-College Summer Science Institute, I admit that I hardly knew what that would involve. The only thing that I did know is that my main interest in the summer institute came from the fact that I was interested in the apparent dichotomy between an “English” brain and a “science” brain. I assume my main interest in this was how to bridge the gap between the two and somehow discover ways in which educators can make science less intimidating. Much of this motivation to “debunk”, if you will, the idea of science as being intimidating came not from my own experiences, but rather from the experiences of my sister and many peers. Time and time again I would witness a countless number of my friends and peers proclaim that they never entered Park Science Building at Bryn Mawr because they did not identify as “science” people and that they would never enter Park because all of the classes that were held there were far beyond their interest or even comprehension. 

Beginning Thoughts…

With this being said, I still admit that although I knew one of my interests in working at the institute was what I mentioned above, I was still unsure of what exactly I would be doing in the institute. I had many people ask me what I was doing during the summer, yet after I told them they did not seem to understand. I will admit that I became increasingly frustrated when several of my peers questioned how such an internship was comparable to the science research that they were performing. It appeared as though they were also confused because while they spent ten weeks working in a laboratory, myself, Kate, and Jessica were spending our ten weeks preparing materials that would be discussed with the teachers. Essentially, I guess the most difficult idea for them to grasp was the difference between the two mediums that we were working with. While the majority of the summer science interns were accustomed to working with inanimate objects, chemicals, and data, our laboratory was concerned more with people and current issues in education.

Although I knew that there was quite a difference between our lab and many of the others during the summer, I still did not know exactly how the work that we were doing during the weeks that lead up to the institute would coincide with the actual things that we would be accomplishing in the institute. Furthermore, I was also a bit confused what exactly the internship would entail. Although I knew the general themes that would be covered I could have never anticipated much of the things that would be accomplished in the institute. For a while myself, Jessica, and Kate were also concerned that we did not have enough material to cover the three weeks of the institute. We were incapable of comprehending how far that material that we had would stretch and doubted that it would do so for three weeks! Lastly, one of my “anticipations” for the institute was the concern that the members of the institute would not exactly “gel” very well.

Lessons Learned…

Now, in retrospect, even while leading up to the institute I learned a lot more than I had ever thought I would. While preparing the materials for the teachers we had the opportunity to read extremely interesting articles as well as partake in co-constructive dialogue to discuss these articles and further projects that we were working on. One of the projects in particular that resonates the most with me is my own mini-project about the concept of eliminating the idea of “right” and “wrong” and replacing such ideas with “less wrong”. I had never before really thought twice about the impact that this could have in the classroom and how it could allow for a more positive classroom experience for all members of the classroom. I also had the opportunity to learn from Jessica’s mini-project with the Monty Hall Dilemma and the concept of the fuchsia dot/neo-cortex that is a component of the human brain yet not found in the brains of other organisms. Before this summer I had honestly never head of the Monty Hall Dilemma nor did I understand the purpose of the neo-cortex. However, after listening to Jessica speak about her topic as well as our dialogue we had about her paper, and reading it, I could actually tie the information that she presented into my own mini-project. Kate’s mini-project on plural selves also allowed me to gain insight into something that I was not very familiar with before. I did know that there was such an idea of plural selves, yet I never attempted to make the connection between plural selves and education.

One of the most notable lessons that was reiterated several times was Paul’s idea of “loopy science”. When I was a child, I seemed to think that science could only exist in the traditional linear model of the scientific method. I wanted to do everything “by the book”, so to speak, and I felt that if I was incapable of formulating a hypothesis or simply prove it as true or not true, I could not be a scientist. Seeing Paul’s presentation of “seriously loopy science” allowed me to recognize the pitfalls of the traditional scientific method. On the other hand, the “loopy science “model which includes cultural background, personal temperament, and individual creativity, accounted for influences that I never even considered. This was the moment that I realized that if we (as a society) were to replace the traditional scientific method with this loopy scientific method beginning in elementary schools or any school with younger children, it is possible that many more people would be interested in studying science at a later age. This new model seems to make science more accessible than the traditional scientific method as it is much less intimidating. This was a huge moment of realization for me as it allowed me to realize that everyone is capable of partaking in the act of science. By nature, humans make observations and then reach summaries to explain these observations. This made me realize that every day we all partake in science, and not just “science” people.



Any Doubts?...

At first when we began our biweekly meetings I was not completely sure why it was necessary to meet twice a week. However, after we began our meeting for these discussions, I realized that there was a wealth of discussion that was exchanged during these meetings. I think this was one of the first times that I had ever experienced a true open-ended dialogue and I soon realized the benefits of partaking in it. This foreshadowed much of the open-ended dialogue that would take place in the institute.

The Institute Begins…

On the first day of the institute, I was surprised at the diversity of the teachers that was present. I will admit that I did not think that a drama teacher or retired teachers would partake in the institute. However, it was a pleasant surprise as I soon realized all of the many attributes and experiences that the teachers would bring to the institute. I loved hearing the interests of the teachers and why they came to the institute.

One of the first activities that we did, after Joyce’s suggestion, was the “brain-drain”.       The words that were offered by Paul: education, teacher, school, students, inquiry, science, and conversation evoked a mix of responses from the teachers. Although there was a mix of responses, many of the words that came to mind were actually very similar. By opening up with a brain drain, this allowed the teachers to begin conversing about such topics without even realizing that they were partaking in co-constructive dialogue! I say that they would not know because the teachers would announce a word then Paul would question why they mentioned that word thereby urging them to explain why they may have thought that way.

Ideas that Seemed to Stick…

As I mentioned before, the definition of the scientific method was altered for me very early on in the summer. On the second day or so, a curveball was also thrown at the teachers that forced them to think differently about what science is and how it is practiced. For example, Paul offered a new definition of science as “creating stories that explain observations of the natural world”. Once again, the idea of “creating stories” eliminated or in the very least lessened the apprehension that many probably associate with science. Rather than viewing science as taking place only in a laboratory setting with beakers, glassware, and chemicals science now became a common everyday activity that can be practiced by all. Also, the idea that was introduced from the “loopy science” model of the scientific method also allowed the group to come to a conclusion that science cannot offer a capital “T” truth.

This idea then led into further discussion about textbooks and how it is often common for the results of experiments that students are working with to not coincide with what is offered in a textbook. Many of the teachers then realized that it is acceptable for their students to arrive at different results or conclusions from their experiments than what is offered in the textbook because their findings are just different “stories”.  

Another two activities that evoked a lot of response from the teachers included the egg diversity activtiy as well as the classification game. At first it seemed as though the teachers did not seem as though they were able to identify any distinguishing characteristics of their egg, however as we went around the room reading our descriptions, egg by egg was quickly identified. In the second activity that day with the organism cards also allowed the teachers to realize that no two groups based their classifications on the same criteria. I think of the largest implications of this task was that it showed quite clearly that the way that different students approach a task in the classroom is often quite different. However, although there is a great amount of diversity in approaching an activity, this does not mean that some students are “right” or some are “wrong”.

In the first week, Paul’s relinquishment of his role as a conductor in the institute allowed many of the teachers to realize that they should relinquish the role as the sole conductor in their classroom and assume the role as a facilitator. This seemed to be an “Aha” moment for many of the teachers as they realized they could still maintain direction and order of their classrooms, yet also allow all of their students to feel as though what they say is important. This idea of a distributed system in a classroom was intriguing. Another point that we tied into this idea was the fact that each and every student brings their own unique background and experience to the classroom. No two students’ past experiences are alike and this ultimately affects how students learn in the present.

Different Facilitators?...

One of the things that I thought was the most interesting of the institute was the idea of bringing in guest speakers to facilitate discussion. Although there was mixed responses amongst the teachers to some of the speakers, lessons still were derived from all of the speakers. Whether or not these lessons encouraged what to do in the classroom, or what to try to avoid in the classroom, it was evident that the teachers were able to learn from them.

From the guest speakers, many of the teachers had a chance to be exposed to material that they either were not exposed to before or that they never felt comfortable with. I especially liked the connection that was made between this and the idea of replacing existing subject names such as “mathematics” and “chemistry” with words that carry a much more positive and inviting connotation. This was a great transition into a larger discussion.

One of the best ideas of the institute I would say was definitely asking the teachers if they wanted to be assume the role as classroom facilitators on a topic that they were interested. This allowed them to convey something that they were interested in to their peers in whichever way that they wanted. It was interesting to see each of the facilitators present information that they were passionate about and to see the willing responses of the rest of the teachers to participate in the activities at hand. In addition, through these lessons, ideas were shared between and amongst teachers. Whether it was Keith’s idea of rewarding his class with marbles or Kate and Jack’s ideas of hand on activities, it seemed as though many of the teachers were interested in replicating this in their own classrooms.


Concluding Thoughts…

Although I browsed numerous times through the home pages for past institutes, I never could fully comprehend exactly what would happen in the institute. As I mentioned above, it was also increasingly frustrated to try to relay to my peers what the summer institute was about and its main purpose. However, not long after we began the institute I soon realized what some of its main focuses were.

The amount of open-ended co-constructive dialogue that we used during the institute allowed me to realize how important it is for teachers and their students to interact and converse with one another. Without this exchange of thoughts and ideas, it is virtually impossible to gain feedback from the classroom. In addition, without dialogue between students it becomes extremely difficult to share ideas with each other.

With this notion of sharing ideas with others also comes the idea of diversity as being positive in the classroom- diversity amongst people and their backgrounds and also diversity in the way in which people think. No two brains are alike, therefore no two people think exactly alike. Because of this, there is no such thing as “right” and “wrong” answers, just different stories or explanations. This is probably one of the most profound ideas that I will take away with me from this institute.

I absolutely loved being an intern this summer at the institute. Not only did I have the chance to learn and be exposed to different things and ideas, yet I also had the opportunity to meet and work with a wonderful group of people.


Summer Science Institute for K-12 Teachers