October 16, 2009
Science Study: Teacher Participation In Columbia Program Improves Student Achievement In Science
Pioneering teacher-training program at Columbia University Medical Center yields marked improvement by students on critical New York state exam
The notion that training teachers in the rigors of hands-on science will directly improve their students' academic performance now has real data behind it: Research assembled over the last decade "“ now published in the Oct. 16 issue of Science "“ shows that high school students' pass rate on New York State standardized tests, called Regents examinations, can be significantly improved if they are among the lucky few to study under a teacher trained in Columbia University's Summer Research Program for Science Teachers.It's the first evidence that science teacher participation in a research experience program produces a significant increase in student achievement, the researchers report. The hallmark of the paper is the attendant data that took 12 years to collect. Columbia researchers have demonstrated that participation of academically prepared, experienced teachers in a sustained and focused research experience program significantly improves their students' performance in science. Participating teachers' students passed Regents science exams at a rate that was 10.1 percentage points higher than that of non-participating teachers' students in the same schools.
The authors of the paper, led by Samuel Silverstein, M.D., of Columbia University's departments of physiology and cellular biophysics and of medicine, and founder of the Summer Research Program for Science Teachers, as well as Columbia economist Sherry Glied, have also documented the economic benefits of making hands-on laboratory experience widely available to science teachers, demonstrating the kind of short- and long-term savings that can be realized when teachers are retained and students don't have to repeat coursework.
Since 1990, Columbia's Summer Research Program for Science Teachers, directed by Dr. Silverstein, has provided opportunities for metropolitan area middle and high school science teachers to do hands-on research for two consecutive summers under the mentorship of Columbia faculty. The program also provides participating teachers with funds to buy science supplies for their classrooms. Their Columbia research experiences encourage them to implement more hands-on, problem-solving exercises in their classrooms to stimulate students' interest and understanding.
As Dr. Silverstein sees it, "This is a simple concept. It uses existing human and physical resources. Its economic benefits exceed its costs. In short, it works."
Passing Regents examinations is a rite of passage for all New York State high school students. To receive a regular high school diploma, students in New York State must pass, with a score of 65 or higher, five Regents Exams: Integrated Algebra, Global History and Geography, U.S. History and Government, Comprehensive English, and one science (Biology [Living Environment], Chemistry, Earth Science, or Physics).
So the link was clear for Dr. Silverstein.
"In starting the program we thought that by studying real-world scientific problems using the tools of contemporary science under the guidance of Columbia faculty, teachers would gain a deeper and more complete understanding of the science they teach and this would translate to greater student achievement," he says.
Nearly 200 members of Columbia University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences have mentored teachers in their laboratories, presented seminars on topics of general scientific interest to participating teachers at the program's Monday professional development sessions, participated in the program's Advisory Committee, and visited teachers classes and schools during the academic year. Thus, although the program originated in the University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, it engages faculty from throughout the University.
"Many members of the Columbia community help the public schools, but there is no program that has had such a profound, long-lasting and measurable impact," said Henry C. Pinkham, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University.
Many faculty mentors have hosted laboratory visits for students of teachers working in their laboratories. Graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and staff from each participating faculty member's laboratory have worked with teachers during the summer months and have visited these teachers' schools. For many inner city students, these interactions with graduate students and fellows are their first contact with a near peer pursuing a career in science.
There are probably over 100 programs for science teachers in the United States, Dr. Silverstein says, but the Columbia program is the only one to have collected student outcomes data for a sufficient period of time to demonstrate a positive impact.
"We were fortunate in the sense that the NYC Department of Education is thorough about their data," study co-author Jay Dubner of Columbia says. "Other teacher research programs are not able to collect similar data "“ their data is not localized, and in many states, a standardized science exam does not yet exist."
And on a qualitative level, teachers who participated in the study indicated that the stresses they experienced in adapting to a research laboratory increased their appreciation of their students' difficulties and prompted them to respond more sympathetically to them. Instead of judging students' answers as "right" or "wrong," they ask, "Why do you think that?" They gain the confidence to acknowledge gaps in their own knowledge, Dr. Silverstein et al report.
Each spring, Columbia's Summer Research Program selects 10 to 13 middle- and high-school science teachers in New York from a pool of 30 to 60 applicants. Admitted teachers are appointed as Visiting Scholars at Columbia University. They receive a stipend of $6,000 per summer and an e-mail account enabling them to use the university's libraries. To aid in the transfer of concepts and techniques learned at Columbia to their schools and students, teachers may request up to $1,000 per year for classroom and/or lab supplies and equipment. In addition, they may request up to $1,000 for conference travel.
"Science is the most powerful method yet devised to understand ourselves, our universe, and our place in it," Dr. Silverstein says. "Columbia's mission is to preserve, communicate, and create knowledge and understanding. By providing pre-college students and teachers with opportunities to participate hands-on in the practice of science, Columbia confirms its commitment to this mission and to the liberal educational tradition for which it is known."
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