During summer institutes, MITEP participants work with Michigan Technological University faculty in the field, engaging in research—measuring stream flow on the Pilgrim River in Houghton, Michigan, for instance. (Carol Engelmann)
Remembering the adage “you only get one chance to make a first impression,” faculty at Michigan Technological University (MTU) partnered with Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) to ensure students’ first impressions of science were positive. Funded by a National Science Foundation award, the Michigan Teacher Excellence Program (MITEP) is a teacher preparation program targeted to eighth-grade Earth science teachers in Michigan.
Earth science is the first “self-contained science course students take in Michigan,” says Jacqueline Huntoon, PhD, associate provost for graduate education and dean of MTU’s Graduate School. The program arose from the hypothesis that by working “with teachers so they become very confident in the subject material, comfortable using Earth science techniques…they will take those back to the classroom and improve instruction for students. Since this is students’ first ‘real’ science class, students will be likely to take more science courses and do well in the future.”
She explains MITEP focuses on Earth science because in Michigan, educators teaching Earth science are “the least likely of all the sciences to have a college major in Earth science or full certification in that field. Biology teachers, for instance, are more likely to have [a biology] undergraduate degree or biology certification.” In contrast, Earth science teachers often have an integrated science endorsement that allows them to teach physics, chemistry, biology, or Earth science. “What happens is, if a teacher earns an integrated science endorsement, they could have as few as two or three college credits in a particular area. They have a lot of breadth and don’t necessarily have a great deal of depth across these areas. With Earth science, a lot of teachers are teaching out of field,” Huntoon contends.
MITEP includes Pedagogy Days with activities such as exploring the circuit board of a wind-up flashlight as part of a session on alternative energy. (Carol Engelmann)
The three-year, year-round professional development (PD) program includes lesson and unit planning—with many hands-on classroom activities—during the school year and field-based summer institutes with MTU geology faculty. MITEP also offers leadership opportunities for participants. Huntoon says school district leaders work with MTU faculty investigators to select teachers to participate and decide what they will do each year. In addition, teacher leaders act as instructors for colleagues in subsequent cohorts and present at national and regional geology meetings. Some MITEP participants took on internships at three national parks in Michigan to work on the parks’ Earth science education programs. The program initially involved MTU, GRPS, the Grand Rapids Area Pre-College Engineering Program, Midwest National Parks, Cass Technical High School, the American Geological Institute, Grand Valley State University, and the Kalamazoo Area Mathematics and Science Center. It expanded in 2011 to include the Kalamazoo Public Schools and the Jackson Public Schools.
As a co-principal investigator, Bill Smith, the science curriculum supervisor at GRPS, recruits educators to participate in MITEP and ensures the program aligns with the district’s PD needs. He notes MITEP helps educators “get really deep content from experts” while incorporating a collaboration aspect that creates opportunities for teachers to work together outside the school and build friendships and partnerships. “That’s not something you can normally provide,” he says.
MITEP teachers demonstrate “deeper content understanding and [use] more hands-on lessons,” according to Smith. MITEP provides them with “extra support from content experts, extra feedback [classroom observations]. They were financially [compensated] for attending the summer institutes; some got college credits as well.”
Smith adds MITEP participants now can lead PD events in the district, and MITEP “could model the way” the district works with other partners in the future. He says MTU “did a good job listening and adjusting to fit our needs.”
One teacher Smith recruited in the first cohort didn’t exactly meet MITEP’s initial criteria. Paul Slade teaches sixth-grade science at Riverside Middle School in Grand Rapids. The first year, “they had such a small number [at the start]; they opened [MITEP] to lower grades. They hadn’t planned it that way, but it worked out pretty good for me,” he quips. By working with eighth-grade teachers, Slade has been able to “make connections, see where they’re going,” and better prepare his students for the science classes ahead of them.
In addition, the field work “was a good chance for me to look at Michigan” and discover local resources, Slade comments. He now takes students to a local river to explore soil quality, erosion, and more. “I use local resources more because I’ve had more exposure to them. Since working with real-life scientists…I’ve been able to use some of the instruments and bring them into the classroom.” He says with MITEP, “You ask for what you want; they bring it in and practice it with you. That always makes it easier to do in class.”
“I’ve learned more about inquiry through MITEP,” asserts Lorentyna Baldus of Grandville, Michigan. Although she was laid off earlier this year, she is hopeful her MITEP experience will help her find a new teaching position in which she can use the skills and connections she made. Having presented at a conference with MITEP, she says she would like to do it again. “Now that I’ve done it once, it’s not as scary as I thought it would be.”
Baldus is also staying engaged with MITEP and her fellow teachers. “Especially with the group of teachers in my small cohort, we talk on a regular basis; we meet on a regular basis [to] bounce ideas off each other. I met teachers I would not normally have met and gotten to know.”
“The greatest part of it [is] collaboration with other teachers,” Slade agrees. “Doing things together allowed us to bond. We began to build the connections that make you a stronger educator.” Acknowledging making time in his busy schedule “is always the hardest issue,” Slade maintains MITEP “was life-changing for some of our teachers.”
MITEP doesn’t just benefit the teachers. The program has affected the university faculty as well. One of the most important things at college level is the people interested in being college faculty are not really focused on the reality of classrooms—benchmarks, high-stakes test[ing], what happens when teachers are moved around,” acknowledges Huntoon. “As a result [of MITEP], faculty are more focused on how to improve education…[MTU] faculty members looking at [standards and benchmarks] to tailor their courses found some that aren’t correct, which puts teachers in a bad position.” She says some MTU faculty are joining a more general movement bringing together the research and education communities to guide instruction by identifying the big picture that will “give the little details some place to go” as new scientific discoveries are made.
“It was interesting to be able to connect university level with local curriculum,” says Slade, adding some university faculty members weren’t accustomed to conveying information to young children. He recalls one faculty member in particular who had trouble engaging the MITEP teachers during lectures. “We pushed him to be more inquiry-like. The second year, he was better than the first.”
Measuring the Effect
As part of the grant, MTU faculty must measure MITEP’s effect on students. “A big part is assessing learning outcomes—collecting data to see if there has been a measurable impact,” Huntoon says. Confounding factors such as teacher layoffs and high student mobility in the state are making it difficult to demonstrate impact using traditional quantitative methods, so the researchers “adjusted our original design to gather qualitative data, [conducting] observations pre and post to see how the way [participants] do instruction changes as result of the process.
“When this project ends, Michigan Tech will walk away, but schools will be empowered to host their own professional development programs and [able] to connect with universities if they want summer institutes taught, or need help teaching inservice days or finding ways to overcome misconceptions in Earth science using hands-on [activities],” concludes Huntoon.
For more information on MITEP, go to http://mitep.mspnet.org.