Hands-On Workshops Give Teachers of Science a Real Feel for the Art of Teaching

Times Staff Writer

They sat at rows of green-topped laboratory tables, each student intent on achieving the correct mix of cornstarch and water in a small paper cup. Stirring the lumpy liquid with ice cream sticks, the students tilted the cups and compared textures, striving for the consistency of thick glue.

The instructor stood in front of the chalkboard and gave the next order: Pour the mess into the palm of one hand and roll it into a ball. A few eyebrows were raised as she did just that, explaining how pressure on the substance would form a crust while leaving the interior liquid.

Then came shrieks of laughter as the white goo dripped between fingers and onto some laps. But the shrieks weren't from giddy youngsters--they were from a roomful of elementary and high school teachers from Whittier and Santa Fe Springs who were attending a session of the Science Academy of Whittier.

This was the second year for the academy, a weeklong series of workshops and lectures at Whittier College. The 90 teachers in attendance received information from three sources: other classroom teachers, academic experts and members of the scientific business community.

During most workshops, hands-on activities were emphasized as the way to interest young people in science. The ball of cornstarch and water was used to illustrate the earth--crusty on the outside and hot and viscous on the inside--during the elementary school teachers' workshop on Rocks and Minerals.

Teachers dusted cornstarch off the desk tops as instructor Carol Takemoto of the Los Angeles Unified School District gave them other ideas. How to illustrate a sedimentary rock by building an edible one from layers of Ritz crackers, strawberry jam, raisins and peanuts. And how to teach about crystals by painting black construction paper with an Epsom salt solution and having students watch through a hand-held microscope as the crystals form.

Workshop topics were designed for three levels: kindergarten through third grade, fourth through sixth grades and seventh through 12th grades. Science areas suggested for younger students included "Gravity and Motion" and "Electricity and Environments." The more advanced workshops included "Teaching Proportional Reasoning in Science" and "Biological Implications of Nuclear Radiation."

The teachers also spent one day touring the Rockwell International plant where the space shuttle is built.

Some of the most popular workshops were taught by Chris Holle, a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher whose topic was "Light, Color, Vision and Lasers." Instead of using the primary colors of red, blue and yellow, in one demonstration Holle gave the teachers magenta, turquoise and red paints to create the colors of the spectrum.

"He made us rethink our way of looking at color," said Jodell Simons, a special education teacher in the Whittier City School District. "It was the most interesting workshop I had the whole time."

Simons also attended last year's academy, which she said opened her eyes to the interdisciplinary possibilities of science.

"It really was a turning point in my teaching career," she said. "I had never realized how teaching science could be incorporated into so many different areas."

Academy activities were largely well received by the teachers, although some were bored by the simpler projects and others were overwhelmed by the advanced presentations.

Alvin Ligh, a science teacher in the Los Nietos School District, made note of the difference between the Rocks and Minerals workshops this year and last.

"Last year, it was more advanced. Since that's my specialty, I enjoyed it more," he said.

Because many teachers lack the academic background to teach in these specific areas, science topics can be intimidating, said keynote speaker Carol Valenta, coordinator of the Los Angeles Unified School District Science Center.

"Often the best answer is 'I don't know.' But we can find out together," she said.

As an example, she asked teachers to guess how many bones are in one hand, excluding the wrist. The estimates ranged from 17 to 100. Then she asked the teachers to feel their bones and count joints to come up with the correct answer: 19.

"You didn't know the answer, but you had the means of finding out," she said.

In today's schools there is an emphasis on science and mathematics that hasn't been seen since the 1950s, when the Soviet Union embarrassed the United States by launching the Sputnik satellite, Valenta said.

"The last time (the race) was not to produce everyday, scientific persons. The last time it was to catch up," he said. Today, in contrast, people seeking jobs must be "scientifically and technically literate."

The task of achieving scientific literacy in Whittier and Santa Fe Springs elementary schools is complicated because, unlike elementary schools in surrounding communities, they are not part of a unified school district, though the two cities' high schools are.

This means that students entering the Whittier Union High School District have been educated under the differing curriculums of the South Whittier, East Whittier, Whittier City, Los Nietos and Little Lake school districts.

"It's my idea that the only way you can integrate science curriculum is if you all work together on it, step by step, all the way (from kindergarten) through high school," said Science Academy Chairman Ron Tebbs, who started the project. "So the best thing we can do is to bring these top people in to get them excited about science education."

Tebbs, who has taught biology in the Whittier Union district for 25 years, said the academy received about $12,000 last year in grants from the federal government and individual school districts. This year the academy's budget is only about $9,000, he said, because funding from the Whittier Union district was cut by 60% and the other school districts had to pick up some of the slack.

The districts pay for their teachers to attend the academy, and the teachers earn continuing education credits that can lead to pay raises and fulfill upgraded state standards for science teaching, Tebbs said. The 1987-88 school year will be the second in which students entering California high schools must take a minimum of two years of science, instead of one, to graduate.

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