By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 2009
During his nine years at the District's Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, Mark Hannum taught math, from algebra to calculus and nearly every level in between. It was more work than sticking with the same course, but it gave him a broader perspective than he might have otherwise had.
"You get very isolated in your one grade level," Hannum said, "and you don't see the big picture -- where kids are starting and where they're trying to get to."
Now he has stepped back for an even broader perspective, traveling the country to learn about and evaluate a National Science Foundation effort to connect graduate students doing cutting-edge research with K-12 teachers.
"I have the unique experience of really seeing science and math education from first grade to the PhD level," Hannum said. "I'm getting a very global perspective."
Hannum is one of 24 teachers working for the federal government this year under the auspices of the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program, a federally funded effort authorized by Congress in 1994. The fellowship gives math and science teachers a chance to spend a year working at federal agencies or crafting legislation as Capitol Hill staffers.
It's a two-way exchange: Fellows get experience to enrich their instruction or springboard into leadership positions in local or state school systems, and their hosts -- who are either crafting legislation or administering federal education programs -- get an infusion of practical classroom experience.
"Education is usually done by folks who have no idea what the classroom is like; that element is missing in developing policy," said Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), a former science teacher whose office has hosted three fellows, one of whom stayed on after the fellowship as a full-time staffer working on education issues.
The program, founded in 1990 with private donations, is managed by the Arlington County-based Triangle Coalition on behalf of the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA -- each of which pays for its fellows -- and the Department of Energy, which pays for the program's management and fellows on Capitol Hill.
Einstein Fellows at Energy helped develop a training program in which teachers spend three summers working on a research team at one of the country's national laboratories. Just last week, a fellow offered advice on integrating green-jobs skills into high school vocational programs, said Bill Valdez, director of workforce development. "Those kinds of experiences just repeat themselves over and over again," he said.
About 175 teachers have participated since 1990, the number fluctuating annually according to budgets and spending priorities; in 1997, only one teacher was awarded a fellowship. Fellows are paid $60,000 for the year, at the end of which they're left with a choice: return to their students or stay in a job where there is a potential to reach a wider audience.
"A lot of teachers feel claustrophobic when they go back into the classroom," said Aaron Schuetz, who was a fellow at Energy from 2003 to 2005. "They're put into a box after they've run free, seeing so many things and being asked to be involved with things all over the place."
Nearly half of previous fellows have returned to the classroom, according to the Triangle Coalition, and Schuetz, who teaches physics at Arlington's Yorktown High School, is one of them. His experience at Energy taught him how much the country needs young talent in the hard sciences and gave him a new ability to connect lessons -- which are not always scintillating for 16-year-olds -- with real-life applications.
"You start raising some of these questions and issues that real physicists work on, and they're interested in that," said Schuetz, whose fellowship entailed traveling to national laboratories and speaking with scientists there about their work. "I can definitely speak with a lot more knowledge and authority now about where the marketplace is, what the labs are looking for and what it means to be a scientist."
Other fellows have stayed in government. Steve Robinson, who served in 2005 as a fellow in then-senator Barack Obama's office, works for the Department of Education as a special White House adviser on math and science issues. Peg Steffen, who had taught for 26 years before becoming an Einstein Fellow in 2000, works at NOAA, developing ocean and climate change educational programs, including online games to teach children about environmental issues.
When agencies are developing such programs, said Steffen, "teachers can provide a little bit of ground-truthing as to whether this will really be advantageous to an educator."
Hannum, the Banneker teacher, began his fellowship last fall at the National Science Foundation and was asked to stay for a second year. He said he is weighing what to do next.
"I do miss my students back in D.C. -- they had a profound influence in my life, and it would be difficult to turn away from that level of interaction," he said.
Then again, through his travels Hannum has seen schools making exciting efforts in math and science, efforts that with the right leadership could be replicated at more schools, for more children. And the possibility that he could be part of that change has captured his imagination.