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Crocodiles, jaguars and orchids – oh my – await future teachers studying in Panama

Need inspiration for teaching middle school science? How about immersing yourself in a living laboratory of biodiversity filled with snapping shrimp, crocodiles, orchids, macaws, jaguars and more than 160 frog species, many of them threatened, sporting every color of the rainbow?

Next month, seven aspiring teachers enrolled in Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College will do just that. The future educators will descend on Panama with faculty and mentor teachers for a 10-day field experience called Preparing Preservice Teachers for Science Success at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The exotic rainforest locale known for packing a staggering number of plant and animal species into a geographical area smaller than South Carolina serves as the classroom where these ASU education majors will hone their understanding of scientific concepts and skills in order to develop effective science lessons as teachers.

“Studies show that the majority of non-science majors express acute science anxiety,” said Penelope Adams Moon, director of ASU’s Arizona Science Education Collaborative. “Nowhere is it more critical to boost science confidence than in future educators teaching the next generation of K-8 students.”

Moon points out that we need both scientists and a larger science-savvy citizenry in the 21st century to find solutions to mounting global challenges. Anticipating that need, ASU situated ASEC at the nexus of its College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Teachers College in order to develop transformational science experiences for learners of all ages, but teachers in particular. The successful applicants going on the Panama research excursion are known as PPSS Fellows.

“Most elementary school teachers have trepidations about teaching science,” explained Eugene Judson, assistant professor of science education in Teachers College and education lead for the project. “By pairing our students with mentor teachers from Higley Unified School District, we think this real-world experience in Panama will prime the pump. We hope it translates into teaching styles that focus science learning on problem-based issues instead of teaching project after project resulting in a kind of activity-mania.”

Before leaving for Panama in June, the PPSS Fellows are bonding with their mentor teachers through workshops and internship experiences at Camp Tontozona near Payson and Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior. After the Panama trip, the ASU education majors will become student teachers this fall in the classrooms of their Higley mentors for a full academic year. PPSS Fellow Jennifer Allen looks forward to the student-teacher partnership.

“We both have a lot to learn from each other, and I’m happy to be paired with a teacher who also looks at it like that,” she said. “I think I bring new methods about teaching science that get students to discover answers on their own, then apply them to a topic relevant to their own lives. It’s all about getting them to do science the way real scientists do.”

According to Teachers College clinical associate professor Molina Walters, known as Dr. Mo, her ASU students already have some hands-on experience using the outdoors as a classroom: “My students are trained in cutting-edge research-based practices,” she said. “They also are well-versed in the 5-E Instructional Model characterized by a five-stage sequence of teaching and learning – engage, explore, explain, elaborate and evaluate. The student teachers will be teaching and modeling that for their mentors.”

Research professor David Pearson in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, who develops new techniques for environmental education in South America, serves as science lead for the project. He said that once in Panama, the PPSS students are most interested in learning about water and its importance to every habitat, whether rainforest or desert.

“The water thing really gets them,” he explained. “Their first reaction is to think that water is more important in the desert where they live. Then they see the rainforest habitat, and they realize that it’s pretty important there, too. Water becomes a unifying principle.

“We also push intergenerational communication,” Pearson added. “We get our future teachers to recognize that if they get their middle school students to go home and ask their parents why they’re wasting all this water and ask them to conserve instead, that parents will listen to them. It’s pretty effective.”

During their field course, PPSS Fellows also interact with local Panamanian teachers and their students, building relationships that last throughout the project and even when it’s over, Pearson explained. He praised the ease of video conferencing for putting students in Panama and Phoenix in touch with each other and also with professors who are experts in different biological areas.

“The cultural aspect for me is as important as the biology,” he said. “Being able to just hop on Vidyo with sixth graders in Phoenix and in Panama to plan their science experiments and share their results, it starts to pull things together. Many of the students are bi-lingual, so they do a tremendous job of translating.”

PPSS Fellow Abel Torres has a special appreciation for the program’s bi-lingual needs having moved from Mexico to Arizona only seven years ago and learned to speak a new language. He is the first in one in his family to attend college.

“When it comes to multicultural differences, maybe I can use that in my classroom,” he said. “Traveling to Panama will let me see how other cultures deal with teaching and see other methods maybe I can use. I don’t want to be that teacher that thinks there’s only one right way to do things.

“I really want to be that teacher that emphasizes hands-on, doing. I feel it’s in my DNA to become a teacher and help these young students change the future.”

Moon said mentor teachers were recruited by Jamie Valderrama, Higley High School biology teacher, who is project liaison with the school district: “Jamie was named one of Arizona’s top teachers in 2010 and serves as a tremendous model for how teachers can make science fun and challenging. Her enthusiasm for science teaching has already begun to influence our participants.”