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Teaching The Teachers

October 16, 2009

When science teachers do research in university labs, their students ultimately benefit–and it shows in their state assessments

Research experiences for science teachers can have a direct impact on the achievement of their students, increasing their performance significantly on state assessments. There are also economic benefits–to the schools and to society at large–in having science teachers take part in research experiences. These are the findings Samuel C. Silverstein of Columbia University and colleagues describe in the Oct. 16 issue of Science magazine.

Silverstein, who is a past chairman of the Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics and professor of medicine at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, is also founder and director of Columbia University’s Summer Research Program for Secondary School Science Teachers (CUSRP).

CUSRP is a program that brings middle and high school science teachers from the New York City metropolitan area to Columbia’s campuses to work on research projects, under the guidance of faculty mentors, for two successive summers. Funded in part by the National Science Foundation, the teachers work in all scientific disciplines represented at Columbia University, from biology and medical sciences to chemistry physics, astronomy, engineering, and earth sciences. A few teachers have even done research at sea on one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s oceanographic research vessels.

Silverstein’s Science paper describes how, over time, students of teachers who participated in CUSRP outperformed other students in New York State’s Science Regents examinations (the state’s annual assessment) by 10 percentage points.

Silverstein and his co-authors, including Columbia economist Sherry Glied, also document the economic benefits to students, Departments of Education, and society at large of making this kind of experience widely available to science teachers. They estimate that the program returns to New York City’s Department of Education $1.14 within four years for every $1 its sponsors have invested in it. These savings are realized from increased teacher retention and decreased need for students to repeat coursework.

They also suggest that this approach is likely to benefit society generally by increasing the number of students completing high school.

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