Rice to help HISD science teachers strengthen skills

$1.1 million contract geared toward improving biology, chemistry and physics education

Rice University will provide professional development for 150 high school science teachers from the Houston Independent School District (HISD) during the 2012-13 school year. The new Rice Excellence in Secondary Science Teaching (RESST) program is funded by a $1.1 million contract from HISD with additional support from Texas Regional Collaboratives.

One of the RESST classroom demonstrations entails hurling tennis balls at a suspended bowling ball. The tennis balls represent alpha particles, and the bowling ball represents the nucleus of the atom. This lesson conveys that most of an atom is empty space.

The program is designed to expand the teachers’ knowledge of physics, chemistry and biology and to develop teaching methods based on inquiry learning for those subjects.

“Nothing has more impact on student learning than ensuring that every classroom is taught by a highly effective teacher,” said HISD Superintendent Terry Grier. “We are excited to have faculty members from Rice, one of America’s most prestigious universities, empowering Houston ISD teachers with the skills they need to prepare all students for college and the workplace.”

“Working with Houston students and teachers aligns nicely with Rice’s core value of engagement with the community,” said Rice President David Leebron. “But this is not a one-way process. We have a great opportunity here to learn from HISD teachers and make sharing what we’ve learned about classroom teaching more effective.”

HISD science teachers were chosen to participate in the program on a school-by-school basis, with the goal of bringing every high school science teacher in the district to Rice over several years, according to John Hutchinson, Rice’s dean of undergraduates and a professor of chemistry. “There’s a push to prepare students through good, rigorous science, and the starting point is these three basic natural sciences,” Hutchinson said. “This is where the greatest need has been identified by the school district.”

The participants completed a full week of training Aug. 6 at Rice and will attend evening classes on campus throughout the fall and spring semesters. They will receive a stipend for completing the program, along with continuing professional education credit. Teachers who wish to receive graduate credit would pay a discounted fee.

The classes will typically include laboratory work, mini lectures, interactive demonstrations, poster sessions, problem solving and simulations. Field trips to factories, museums and power plants are among the activities planned so far, Hutchinson said.

The biology lessons will be taught by Rice lecturers Beth Beason and Liz Eich. The physics lessons will be taught by Jason Hafner, an associate professor of physics and astronomy and of chemistry, and Gigi Nevils-Noe, assistant director of Rice’s School Science and Technology (SST) program. The chemistry lessons will be taught by Hutchinson and Amber Szymczyk, another SST assistant director.

Carolyn Nichol, director of SST, will oversee RESST. Nichol said teachers have taken pre-course tests in their subject areas to assess their abilities and will continue to be evaluated as the course goes on. “We’ll also look at end-of-course tests for biology and chemistry teachers in our program compared to those who are not,” she said.

Chemistry Professor John Hutchinson discusses atomic principles with HISD teachers in the RESST program.

Groundwork for the initiative began in 2002 with a course, Nanotechnology for Teachers, created as part of Rice’s Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology. Hutchinson took the course over in 2006 and he and Nichol, who joined Rice in 2007, began building toward the current program. “It was a one-semester class,” Nichol said. “Every year teachers would ask us, ‘What else can we take?’ They were looking for more, and it became apparent we had the capability of providing more.”

Chris Williams, a chemistry teacher at Morton Ranch High School, took the class last year and said Hutchinson’s presentations had an impact on his teaching. “I learned how to restructure what I’m doing based on asking the right kind of questions,” he said. Williams is now one of the facilitators for RESST.

Candy Cromwell, who teaches integrated physics and chemistry at Phillis Wheatley High School, said she enjoyed the first week of RESST training. “It gave me some great tools to get the year started off in a good direction to get students learning through inquiry, and I think they will have a better appreciation for research and experiments,” she said.

Teachers will come away from classes at Rice with materials to go along with their new techniques – including tennis balls and modified bowling balls used in a demonstration created by Hutchinson to illustrate atomic principles to youngsters. (See video below.) “We’ve handed out 50 to 100 bowling balls a year for the last three or four years,” Hutchinson said. “The teachers also get model kits for molecules and other supplies for experimental demonstrations. They get lots of written materials, all of which is either free from Rice or paid for by HISD through the program.”

He said materials for his class will include a new version of his chemistry textbook, soon to be freely available in PDF, Kindle, iPad and Nook formats through Connexions, Rice’s online platform to share academic materials.

RESST will continue to serve teachers from all districts, not just HISD, Nichol said. “We’ve always had HISD teachers in our program, but their numbers didn’t reflect how big HISD is,” she said. “So they were underrepresented. But when we talked with Terry Grier, he was onboard from the start.”



About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.