North Central College - Naperville, IL

Nurturing the Inquisitive Mind

Kate Smith ’05 Pereda loves to teach science to her fifth-grade pupils in Addison, IL. During the one semester each year that she can even fit the topic into the schedule, she’s armed and ready to engage her students—several of whom want to pursue science in their futures—with valuable lessons and methods learned at North Central College.

“Teachers are a huge influence in whether their students enjoy science,” Pereda says. “And quite often the quiet kids in the classroom just light up during those lessons.”

In the education world, there’s a shortage of teachers like Pereda who embrace the principles of scientific inquiry. As a Boston Globe editorial explained, “A 2007 report of the National Academies described the scientific knowledge of K-8 teachers as ‘limited’ and ‘often quite thin.’ Since teacher knowledge significantly affects student learning, this should give us pause. The nation is not producing enough well-qualified teachers of math and science.”

The Handbook of Research on Science Education, a compilation of research in the field, details the issues and possible solutions. “Student science learning is a major concern ... and is influenced by science curriculum, instruction and evaluation,” writes Chorng-Jee Guo, a professor and president of National Taitung University in Taiwan, and an expert from an international perspective.

“Elementary and middle school teachers can be very apprehensive about teaching science,” says John Zenchak, North Central College professor of biology and Ruge Fellow. “They simply don’t know enough about it.”

North Central College’s commitment to science education is rooted in a long tradition of grooming educators to nurture inquisitive minds at elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools. Zenchak and Mary Jean Lynch, professor of psychology, co-teach a unique Science Inquiry course—offered through the science division—to prepare teachers to transform their science knowledge into engaging activities for young learners. Teachers conduct demonstrations using simple materials that require learners to determine what caused the John Zenchakobserved outcome. Pupils design and perform their own experiments and explain their results.

“We get kids interested in science without explosions,” says Zenchak, adding that simplified lessons are especially welcome at the high-needs schools with which they work. “Yet there’s still a ‘wow’ component that grabs their minds.”

During a recent demonstration in Pereda’s classroom, the students learned a simple lesson about the molecular structure of sodium polyacrylate, the substance in disposable diapers that soaks up liquids.

These North Central professors are widely sought after as presenters at conferences and are currently writing a book together. They’ve researched the effectiveness of their methodology and the benefits of offering Saturday science clubs for girls in grades four through six (when interest in science falls dramatically) and conducted summer teacher workshops on science.

They also proposed and received approval for the addition of a new K-5 science concentration for North Central elementary education majors. And they are following state legislation that would require middle school teachers in Illinois to obtain an endorsement to teach science. Many middle school educators who teach science have minimal preparation to do so.

Maggie Parent ’93 Detwiler majored in math and minored in biology, a combination that is serving her well as a middle school science teacher at St. Irene’s Catholic School in Warrenville, IL. She’s also a big fan of the science inquiry curriculum and sees long-term benefits for her pupils. “The goal is to make them into lifelong thinkers and learners,” she says. “Giving them the tools to figure things out for themselves is huge for the world they’re coming into.”

Providing students with opportunities for collaboration while they identify and solve real-world problems engages them in the scientific process, says Eric McLaren ’86, principal of the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA) in Aurora, IL, a college preparatory program funded by the State of Illinois for talented math and science students and recognized by Intel in 2009 as its top “School of Distinction” in the nation. “For example, students can learn an awful lot by studying how to mediate local retention ponds.”

Science literacy is crucial because “we face so many public policy issues that are rooted in understanding the basics of science,” McLaren adds. “And our national competitiveness is dependent on our ability to educate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

Yet a lack of consistency in science education in Illinois is apparent, when talented students arrive at IMSA with a passion for learning science but with varying degrees of science education opportunities, says Barbara Miller ’80, director of enrollment and academic services at IMSA. “There are many schools without the resources to provide extensive science instruction, purchase state-of-the-art lab equipment or to offer lab science classes.”

Sheri Stacks '07Teacher Sheri Starks ’07 has been fortunate to find a source of resources for her chemistry and physics classes at Richards High School in Oak Lawn, IL. Starks has enriched her classroom thanks to a highly competitive program for which she was selected in 2009 at Argonne National Laboratory. “The program includes three summers of research with scientists and a grant for classroom equipment,” Starks explains. “I’ve already been able to share my experiences from last summer and my students really enjoy hearing about how science is used in the real world.” Her students this year will build nanocrystalline solar cells and work with ferrofluids (iron particles that react to magnetism) thanks to her Argonne research.

Starks is acutely aware of the need to keep her students engaged. Her own career goals were shaped by a high school chemistry teacher and Starks tries to make the science profession sound appealing to young minds, especially her female students. “I try to explain that science actually can be very social,” says Starks, who majored in chemistry at North Central. “They think it’s just old men isolated in a laboratory. I’ll show them pictures of me and my friends in a lab or attending the [National Conferences on Undergraduate Research] in California.”

Paul BrandtStarks gained her initial classroom preparation from working with science faculty, like Paul Brandt, associate professor of chemistry. In addition to mentoring future teachers, Brandt devotes his energies to capturing the interest of budding young scientists. He enlists his students to perform science demonstrations at schools in Naperville, Batavia and Aurora and at the DuPage Children’s Museum. The chemistry faculty has also conducted Boy Scout science merit badge clinics.

Every winter North Central hosts about 100 teachers for the “Big Meeting” of ChemWest, an organization of high school chemistry teachers in the Chicago area. “Our goal is to both prepare and support teachers. If we can give them some simple models to work with, they won’t be afraid of the content,” Brandt says.

At East Aurora High School in Aurora, IL, teacher David Rapp ’04 enjoys making chemistry intriguing with demonstrations he learned from Brandt and Jeff Jankowski, also an associate professor of chemistry. “The kids just eat it up” when Rapp creates spectacles like the shooting fountain of soda using breath mints.

He tells his students that the problem-solving skills they’ll learn will help in all their other subjects. “Chemistry requires reading, math and hands-on work,” he says. “If they can handle chemistry, they can handle anything.”

North Central NOW Winter 2010

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