Connecting high school biology teachers with the latest in science research — and with each other

Science teachers Hannah Niehoff (left), from Clayton High School in Clayton, Mo., and Stephanie Tate-Patterson, from Vashon High School in St. Louis, participate in the summer institute. (Credit: Margo Hathaway)

Reinvigorating teachers was one of the primary objectives stated in the original NSF seed grant, which Barbara Schaal, PhD, now dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences and the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biology, submitted in 2006. Victoria L. May, now executive director of ISP and assistant dean in Arts & Sciences, was the co-principal investigator on the grant.

“To me, the important goals were to expand the knowledge base of these very talented teachers, to instill a research focus for teaching, and — most of all — to convey how wonderfully exciting and interesting modern biology is,” said Schaal, who continues to lecture at the summer institute.

But if a passion for their content area is how they got into teaching in the first place, why do teachers need to be reinvigorated? The fact is that teaching suffers from a significant retention problem.

In 2009, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future reported that nearly half of all new K-12 teachers leave the profession within their first five years. For science teachers, Balcerzak said, up to 40 percent leave the profession in the first three years, depending on the school district.

What causes new teachers to flee the profession? The low salaries? The long hours? The most critical factor, Balcerzak believes, is the isolation. “While directing this program, I’ve seen that biology teachers across the country are isolated in their classrooms and in their intellectual and instructional lives. Sometimes, they are the only high school life science teacher in the district,” she said.

Washington University’s program offers a national cohort — the only NSF-sponsored Teacher Leader Institute to do so. The importance of this cannot be understated, Balcerzak said. When asking the teachers what they appreciated about the program, every one of them mentioned the nationwide network of biology teachers that they discovered through the program.

The high school teachers confided to Balcerzak that for the first time in their careers, they have peers to turn to for help with planning lessons or trying to inspire students who struggle with science.

Balcerzak, who is tracking this network, said these contacts are being maintained years after graduation. “[Our] teachers were able to connect with other teachers around the country, and they realized that what they were doing in their isolated district was really as important as what everyone else was doing across the country.”

High school teachers appreciate the nationwide network of fellow teachers developed through the master’s program. The graphic above shows isolated groups of teachers who have been selected for participation in the program, but have not yet connected. The distribution below shows how connected the teachers are after their time at the summer institute. (The red circles are the institute participants, the blue squares are the institute faculty and staff, and the green triangles are other individuals.)

A network of peers

After graduating from the program in 2010, Michelle Halvorsen, from the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin; Kelly Shipley, from McMinnville High School in Oregon; and Valerie Smallbeck, from Bismarck High School in North Dakota, still talk regularly.

They frequently fly to visit each other and exchange emails and phone calls to collaborate on a project designing science curriculum that can be used by high school biology teachers across the country — a project that would not have been started without the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas.

The group said that not only did they return to their districts more inspired, but also — after debating the right word for a few minutes, the group agreed — more empowered.

“It’s made me a better leader in the role that I play. It helped me get out of the box,” Smallbeck reported. “I came into the program knowing a lot about science. But I think having that master’s degree that says WashU and having been so involved in the leadership project and going to the national conferences … other people notice that and they say ‘Maybe I should pay a little more attention. Maybe I should listen to see what exactly has come back home.’”

“Because I feel so much more confident in my content area, and because I feel so much more involved in my school district, I feel like I can better motivate or empower students who are interested in science,” Shipley said. “There are students who really, really love science who want to do more than what I just do in my room.”

Halvorsen recently took a side job writing biology lesson plans for a company in Texas. She said some of what she learned in the program made its way into the work she submitted, which means there are now 800 or so school districts using Washington University-inspired lesson plans.

Nurturing leaders

Many of the teachers from the program continue working on projects — such as Halvorsen, Shipley and Smallbeck’s national curriculum project — for years after they graduate. Within the program, these are called leadership projects, and Balcerzak encourages them.

“Rather than bringing them here and teaching them courses on leadership,” Balcerzak said, “we asked them what change they want to make in their schools or in education, and some of them came back to us with mini-proposals about changes they wanted to see happen.”

Margo Hathaway, the leadership program coordinator, said the teachers had lots of ideas. “Some of them wanted to introduce new ways to teach biology. Some of them wanted to write curriculum that would connect the WashU science research to their struggling learners.

“And some local teachers got together several events to support new teachers and encourage them to stay in the profession. They felt like they had come to some insights about what would be helpful.”

In this way, these leadership projects continue to expand the network started at Washington University. The graduates are able to introduce the university’s leadership, world-class research and student-centered values to other science teachers around the country.

Balcerzak also has been tracking the graduates’ success in their own classrooms and reports that student test scores are higher after teachers have completed the program.

This student performance test graph shows student improvement in the classrooms of high school teachers who participated in the master’s program summer institute and who also took on a leadership project.

While helping these high school biology teachers reach their struggling students is the most important goal of the program, Balcerzak has her sights on, ultimately, affecting education at a national level.

After graduation, she hopes that the teachers continue to “make their work visible through the media and change the conversation about teaching and learning in schools from one that emphasizes a deficit to one that honors and values high-quality teaching in this country.”

A science education for the real world

Because the original NSF seed grant expired, University College has incorporated the program into its offerings, continuing to work with the Institute for School Partnership. Though the program is now tuition-based, all of the graduates heartily recommend it to any life science teacher.

“For a working educator, this fits,” said Chuck McWilliams, who graduated from the program in 2011 and teaches biology at the local Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School. He had tried other biology master’s and doctorate programs, but said this program suits his life much better as a teacher and a parent.

“[They’re] willing to be flexible, which makes it different from other degree programs I’ve been involved with in the past, where it felt more like you were going through hoops and checking off lists. This all fits in your world.”

Jeanne Norris from Gateway STEM High School in St. Louis, who attended her first classes at the summer institute in July, lit up when she spoke about her experiences.

She admits that before the program, she felt limited by the funding. “But truthfully, at the end of the day, after going through this three-week program, the only thing I’m really limited by is my own energy.

“There are so many people at WashU who are willing to help. I have so many ideas now from this program. The only thing is going to be having the energy to keep going throughout the school year.”

As a local teacher, Norris was able to take advantage of a new source of financial aid for the program through the Parsons Blewett Memorial Fund. The fund supports St. Louis Public Schools teachers with financial support for educational and professional development.

Balcerzak hopes the financial aid opportunities will only continue to multiply, and that the program will expand to include other science fields.

“Locally, we get a lot of questions about if we could do this for chemistry or physics,” she said. “The really exciting vision with the Next Generation Science Standards that are out would be to have a life science, chemistry and physics teacher conference where they each had their own week, and then they overlapped with each other to do interdisciplinary STEM work.”

Norris, whose husband is a chemistry teacher, hopes that this expansion soon will be possible. “It makes you really think about your classroom in a different way. The things that you can bring to your students. It’s just … it’s energizing. I’ve walked away just feeling like — and I know I’m probably going to kick myself for saying this a couple weeks into the school year — I can’t wait! I can’t wait to get started.”