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Pilot Program : 54 Teachers Begin Study of Science

Times Staff Writer

The kickoff, with balloons and cheers and rah-rah exhortations, indicated a sports event or a meeting of super-salesmen.

But the gathering earlier this week in Costa Mesa was actually about California’s shortage of science teachers. The kickoff event was the launching of a month-long pilot program to help Orange County elementary teachers become more comfortable in dealing with science.

The program, “Process and Concepts in Elementary Science (PACES),” involves 54 grade-school teachers from districts all over Orange County. The teachers will be going to classes for four weeks, learning more about science so that they, in turn, can better instruct their fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students.

The pilot project was initiated with balloons and cheers, said state officials, because enthusiasm about science is badly needed at both the teaching and student levels.

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“Studies have found that students in the first three grades start off very enthusiastic about science,” said state education official Grace Matteis. “The enthusiasm drops off in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades.”

Reinforcement Needed

Teachers in those grades, Matteis said, need reinforcement in science so that they can make the subject more appealing to their students.

Kathy DiRanna added: “A lot of elementary teachers are not skilled in the ability to teach science. They’re frightened of it. What this program is trying to do is make them become confident and comfortable and enthusiastic in teaching science.”

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Matteis is the director of the state-funded Region 14 Teacher Education and Computer Center, which is sponsoring the science-teaching program. DiRanna is a math and science specialist with the center.

The two were among the speakers Monday morning as the teaching program was introduced at the Orange County Department of Education offices in Costa Mesa.

While the theme was science, the format wasn’t the stereotypical man in white coat with bubbling beaker. Instead, the meeting room was colorfully--even whimsically --decorated with balloons, drawings of animals and flowers in test tubes. Homemade sun visors for the teachers had drawings of animals and the legend: “I Love Science.”

Officials said that if elementary-level teachers can learn to be both knowledgeable and comfortable with science, they can perk up the scientific interests of maturing children. Students in the United States, the program officials noted, usually lag far behind other countries in science education.

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Japanese, Russian Students

“In Japan, the students spend three times the number of hours (studying science),” said Matteis. “In Russia, a student will take six to 10 years of physics, whereas in this country a student usually just gets one year.”

The need for more science teachers--and better qualified science teachers--was underscored Wednesday during a Sacramento press conference called by an academic-business community task force that has been analyzing math-science teaching in California.

Glenn Seaborg, a Nobel Prize winner and professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley, told the press conference that 1,400 persons teaching math and science in the state currently are not qualified. Seaborg, who was co-chairman of the task force, said that California colleges and and universities are turning out fewer than 500 science and math teachers a year for elementary-secondary education.

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The task force recommended more science training for elementary teachers--something that the pilot project in Orange County was kicking off.

The 54 Orange County elementary-level teachers all volunteered to take part in the PACES program. They will be tutored by college and high school science instructors. As part of the four-week program, the 54 teachers will also draft science lesson plans and then actually teach from the plans at summer schools in Huntington Beach and Placentia.


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