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Science & Tech

Renewable Imagination

Profs to bolster elementary school science with green energy projects

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CAS professors Glenn Stevens (left) and Bennett Goldberg are co–principal investigators of a Massachusetts Board of Higher Education grant funding summer immersion courses in green energy for elementary school teachers. Photos by Kalman Zabarsky

The United States is losing its competitive edge in science and engineering, one bored kid at a time.

“Many elementary school teachers don’t have the background or training in the sciences to build the self-confidence necessary to be exploratory teachers in the classroom,” says Bennett Goldberg, a College of Arts and Sciences physics professor and department chair. And, he says, it is exploration rather than textbook explanations that engages students and is at the heart of real science.

Goldberg and Glenn Stevens, a CAS professor of math and statistics, are the principal investigators for a new grant from the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education intended to help teachers develop more hands-on lesson plans that will keep students interested in science. The nearly $500,000 grant is one of 10 awarded this year from the state’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Pipeline Fund. It will fund a collaborative initiative called Inquiring Minds, developed by a team from BU, Northeastern University, and Wheelock College.

At the core of the initiative is a two-week green energy immersion course, primarily for elementary school teachers, that will be offered this summer. This course is modeled on a summer professional development course on optics, funded by a grant from Stephen Bechtel, Jr., that BU faculty began conducting last summer. During the green energy session in July, BU instructors will guide teams of teachers in designing and building a project that calls for renewable energy, such as wind, solar, or hydropower. They will then develop lesson plans for the classroom.

The instructors will provide ideas for projects, materials, and guidance throughout the two-week session. “They might work on developing something that works with falling water that turns a wheel and powers a generator, or they might do something with solar power,” says Peter Garik, a School of Education clinical associate professor of curriculum and teaching and an instructor for the immersion courses.

“The idea is, let’s do some science. Let’s see what it’s like to try and seek an explanation in a situation where we really don’t have the answer,” says fellow immersion instructor Donald DeRosa (SED’91,’01). “We want to give them the opportunity to experience science, so they can better teach science.” De Rosa is an SED clinical assistant professor of curriculum and teaching and the director of Boston University’s CityLab, MobileLab, and SummerLab programs, which give local high school students the opportunity to work in a state-of-the-art biotechnology lab.

Sparking greater interest in science among young students is seen as critical for supplying the talent and innovation to feed economic growth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 47 percent increase by 2010 in jobs related to science and engineering over what existed in 2000, compared to a 15 percent job growth for other occupations. The Inquiring Minds project team decided to focus on green energy because of its potential for interdisciplinary scientific investigation, the explosion of interest in global warming, and America’s dependence on foreign oil.

Massachusetts, like many states, recently introduced several initiatives to encourage the use of renewable energy and to promote green energy as an economic engine. Those include state rebates for solar panel installation and the five-year, $50 million Green Jobs Act introduced this week by Massachusetts House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi.

“I would say it’s the big scientific issue of our time,” says Andrew Duffy, a CAS assistant professor of physics, who is also an immersion program instructor. “I think it’s really going to pull a lot of teachers in and also get their students interested.”

Before the summer immersion, teachers will attend five introductory meetings in May and June, where they will review basic science and math concepts, such as kinetic and potential energy, thermal energy, and simple geometry and trigonometry.

During the next academic year, they will report on how the new lesson plans have played out in the classroom, and the BU instructors will make occasional classroom visits. Finally, there will be a series of STEM Education Days in January and February 2009, when teachers will bring their students to labs at BU, Northeastern, or a corporate partner.

“The whole idea is to expose students to the opportunities in higher education and to make them aware of career opportunities in STEM fields,” says Cynthia Brossman, director of BU’s Learning Resource Network, whose office will administer the grant and coordinate the program activities. “Hopefully we’ll build on the projects and themes developed in the summer workshops.”

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.

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