Teachers Get an Education

In this country, as in much of the Western world, we are constantly bemoaning slipping scores in math and science. So here's a bit of good news: The first 26 science teachers to participate in the Rothschild-Weizmann Program for Excellence in Science Teaching will be receiving their degrees in science education in a few weeks. This M.Sc. program is directed by the Feinberg Graduate School at the Weizmann Institute of Science.*

The idea of the program is simple: To improve science education, invest in the teachers. The Weizmann Institute invited high-school science and math teachers who already had a reputation for outstanding teaching to enroll in the three-year course of studies.
To find out more about the program, we spoke with Prof. Bat Sheva Eylon, Head of the Science Teaching Department.


WSW: How did you choose the teachers who participated in the program?

Eylon: We were not looking only at teachers' knowledge of science or math, but rather searched for the type of teacher who is willing to take up studies in a demanding program, who is motivated to get the student interested, who is passionate about their subject, who wants to contribute to developing and advancing science education. In our interviews, we scouted out those who were ready for the challenge.

For those excellent teachers who already have advanced degrees, by the way, we initiated an additional track in the program, as we also want to capitalize on these teachers' potential to advance the educational system. They also need the opportunity to further their professional abilities.

WSW: Can you tell us a little about the studies?

Eylon: The course work was very intensive, with a lot of science content, and there were quite a few requirements. The courses were especially designed and mostly taught by Weizmann Institute scientists from the various departments. So these teachers were exposed to the frontiers of science as they worked in the Institute's labs and carried out challenging final projects.

WSW: After three years of studies, what do you think is the most important thing these teachers will take home with them?

Eylon: Before they began the program each of the 26 was high-school science teacher. Now they are all a part of a community. It is this community that we expect to see leading the changes in our educational system, because ultimately, we want to see improvements for all students. If our graduates consider themselves done with the process and simply return to teaching as before, then we have failed.

To support that community, we have established an alumni forum, and a newsletter and internet site for resources will follow in the near future. In return, they receive all the support and advice they need from the Weizmann Institute. In fact, several of the graduates are already committed to working here or in their own regions with other teachers, at least one day a week in the coming year.

WSW: This being the Weizmann Institute, can we assume there is research being done on the efficacy of this approach?

Eylon: Yes of course. Several graduate students in the Science Teaching Institute are investigating, in depth, selected aspects of the program. In addition, we have been evaluating and assessing the program from the beginning, and will continue to do so for the next several years. We already have some preliminary results about the studies in the M.Sc. program as well as from a number of initiatives that have been carried out by the teachers.

WSW: What are your personal feelings now that you are about to see the first class graduate?

Eylon: There is a lot of elation, but it is tempered by knowing that we still have a lot of challenges ahead. First of all, I'm elated that the Weizmann Institute managed to pull this project off. It was quite an undertaking - one that required cooperation between the Feinberg Graduate School, a lot of scientists, members of the Science Teaching Department staff and the highest ranks of the Institute. But the program is still evolving and challenges remain. For instance, the scientists, who are used to dealing with science Ph.D. candidates and postdocs (the Weizmann Institute has no undergraduate education wsw) are still looking for innovative and effective ways to teach courses to teachers.

In the end, if we see positive changes in our science education, it will have all been worthwhile.

*The Rothschild-Weizmann Program was established for a period of 10 years and is funded generously by the Caesarea Edmond Benjamin de Rothschild Foundation.

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How is the Institute going to assess whether or not their program had any impact on the learning of the students of these teachers? I would think that taking excellent teachers and making them better would have little impact on student learning; their students are already doing well. A better program might be one that took poor teachers and made them good teachers.

As far as assessment goes, there is always the gold standard of test scores, especially as Israeli high school students all take the same, standardized matriculation exams. Not perfect, but quantifiable.

And of course, even good teachers need better tools and resources to teach effectively. And the teachers in the program not only learn science, they are encouraged to innovate and develop new curricula and approaches. The hope is that they will also take an active part in spreading this innovation throughout the education system.