Having successfully dodged chemistry and physics courses throughout college and his 24-year teaching career, Edward Pfarr is now boning up on rocket propulsion, electromagnetic waves and Newton's laws of motion -- and liking it.
Pfarr is one of 52 elementary school teachers in Prince George's County who are spending part of their summer on the other side of the teacher's desk, scribbling notes and studying chemistry, physics or biology at the Summer Science Institute at Prince George's Community College.
"It's been a long time since I've done any science, but if I sharpen my knowledge of physics and learn new techniques, I can use what I learn in my own classroom," said Pfarr, who teaches fourth grade at Waldon Woods Elementary School in Clinton.
The Summer Science Institute, administered by the college, began three years ago as part of a nationwide effort to improve science and math education in elementary and secondary schools. The program is supported in part by federal funds distributed by the Maryland Higher Education Commission. The community college contributes about $42,000 toward the institute's $125,000 annual budget.
Similar teacher-training courses are offered at other colleges and universities in Maryland, but the Prince George's institute is the largest such program for elementary school teachers in the state, said Javier Miyares, director of grants and special projects for the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
"It's a crash course, and we teach them all the basics," said Joe Padgett, an instructor for the two-week physics course, which ends tomorrow. The institute's two-week chemistry and three-week biology courses ended earlier this summer.
Classes meet seven hours a day, five days a week, and on most afternoons the teachers-turned-students are in the labs.
Such intensive training is needed because more than 90 percent of the elementary school teachers in Prince George's have never taken a college-level physics course, and more than 80 percent have never studied college-level chemistry, said Vera Zdravkovich, director of the program.
"One of our goals is to dispel misconceptions and make the teachers less afraid of science," said Zdravkovich.
The institute seems to be succeeding. Teachers are tested on the first and last days of class to evaluate their understanding of basic scientific concepts, and their scores have improved significantly.
The 20 teachers enrolled in this year's chemistry course raised the mean test score by 28 percent.
More than 130 teachers applied for the 62 available slots in the summer program, and they were accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. The institute pays each teacher a stipend of $300 a week, and many said they could not attend the institute if not for the stipend.
Next year the institute's coordinators hope to add an environmental science course to the curriculum.
"Activities such as these are of great importance not only for teachers, but also for the children, who are our future generation," said Zdravokich.
"If our teachers harbor erroneous concepts or are afraid of science, science education is doomed. But if teachers can become enthusiastic and knowledgable of science, only then can they teach their students to love science and pursue it in the future."
"I have no science background, and just the sound of the word 'chemistry' was intimidating to me," said Carol Schmitz, a first-grade teacher at Dodge Park Elementary School in Landover. Schmitz is one of 10 teachers who enrolled in both the chemistry and the physics classes.
Like most of her colleagues, Schmitz was stumped when asked on the first days of class to draw a picture of water molecules in solid, liquid and gaseous forms. After completing the chemistry course, however, she not only can do that but she's also able to discuss the distinctions between chemical and physical reactions and between heat and temperature.
Although Schmitz may never teach those finer points to her first-graders, their classroom experience will be enriched by her firmer grasp of science, she said.
Laurel Brassington, a teacher's aide at Frances Fuchs Special Center in Beltsville, never studied physics or chemistry, not even in high school. Then she enrolled in the summer physics program for general knowledge and to help her students. "I feel that special education is an area where science education is virtually ignored," she said.
By the time they leave, the teachers should be equipped with a working knowledge of physical principles and a package of lesson plans to teach their students how physics applies to their lives, said Patricia Basili, coordinator for the physics and chemistry courses.
"Many teachers come in with an attitude that they want to learn just enough to get by with their students," Basili said, "but we teach them more than they'll ever need in their classrooms. Many of them are afraid when they first come in, but when they leave they know that science is simply about being a good observer."