Montgomery, Md., teachers get advanced science training

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 5, 2010; 5:31 PM

In a laboratory in Rockville one recent evening, a group of Montgomery County science teachers yanked strands of hair from their heads and slid them into vials.

They were learning how to replicate their DNA, part of Montgomery schools' novel approach to helping science teachers stay abreast of the latest developments in their field. In many school districts, teachers have to take it upon themselves to keep up to date with late-breaking research and translate it into their classrooms; in Montgomery, they get help.

As a veteran biology teacher walked the teachers-turned-students through the DNA replication exercise, they jotted down notes. They said practicing the activity down to its nitty-gritty details -- how many drops of mineral oil to use at a certain step, for example, or how to work the expensive thermocycler machine -- helped them feel more confident about doing the lab exercise in classrooms full of teenagers.

"You can order kits through various school supply companies, but then you get no expertise with it," said Lisa Voketitis, a forensics teacher at Damascus High School who attended the recent training session, conducted at the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology in Rockville.

The school system's DNA Resource Center has developed nine lab experiments that teach biotechnology concepts. The center is funded by six-figure annual grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, managed by a handful of part-time staff members and housed at Thomas S. Wootton High School in a supply room filled with pipettes and flasks.

The center staff trains teachers to use the lab activities in their classrooms and delivers all of the equipment and consumable materials that the exercises require.

The DNA Resource Center, which dates to the 1980s, has primarily served Montgomery County's high schools. Beginning in the spring, it will expand into middle schools. Seventh-grade teachers will be trained in biotechnology concepts and activities, such as DNA gel electrophoresis, that once were reserved for advanced science courses.

"This is how you ensure that there's equity in our science instruction," said Anita O'Neill, supervisor of engineering and science for Montgomery schools. "We want all of our students to have the same opportunities to succeed, and our teachers are armed to produce that result."

The center trained 70 teachers last year and provided more than 13,000 lab kits. Its budget, about $280,000 in grant funds last year, will rise to about $350,000 this year with the expansion to middle school, O'Neill said.

School systems use that kind of centralized planning more often for elementary than secondary schools, said Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. That's true in Fairfax County, where elementary and middle school teachers can order district-developed lab kits for their classrooms. High school teachers do not have that option, said science coordinator Myra Thayer.

"Most teachers who teach elementary don't have a great background in science, so in order to make sure they have the lessons and materials, they are all provided," Thayer said. "For high school, that's not a problem because teachers know their content."

But Montgomery officials said that even teachers who are knowledgeable about science might need help translating advanced research concepts into classroom-friendly lab activities that can be conducted within the confines of a bell schedule.

"At this point, most teachers in the classroom have the content background," said Sanford Herzon, who teaches forensics at Wootton and trains other teachers. "Now it's pedagogical and logistical."

That kind of pedagogical and logistical support is necessary for teacher-training to be worthwhile, said Myles Boylan, a program director for the National Science Foundation.

"We've known for some time that just sending teachers to a workshop and then back to their schools without further support, is not effective," Boylan said.

Nasrin Saikh, an Advanced Placement biology teacher at James Hubert Blake High School who attended the training, agreed.

"There should be no excuses for a teacher not to do this," she said. "We have the resources."

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