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For Science Teachers Learning Modeling Instruction, Wrongs Do Make a Right

By Patricia Lamiell

It’s great to make mistakes in school – provided you learn from them.

That’s been the underlying premise for an annual summer gathering of science teachers at Teachers College. Known as the Modeling Instruction Workshops, the event is organized by a grassroots group of educators called STEMteachersNYC.

Each weekday, teachers in cooperative teams do things like send toy cars scooting across a classroom table to model the relationship between distance and speed.

In chemistry, the teachers use their noses to find out how quickly perfume moves across the room and balances to find out how mass changes when substances alter their form and appearance. They measure the density of solids, liquids and gases and develop diagrams of an atomic particle to help explain their findings.

The teachers are learning a technique called modeling instruction, which has been around for decades but is still not widely used – but will become much more common if Fernand Brunschwig, co-founder and chair of STEMteachersNYC and adjunct professor of science education at Teachers College, has his way. Amid all the current worry that American schools are failing to interest and educate the country’s next generation of scientists, engineers, and technologists, Brunschwig, is one science educator who is upbeat about STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in the United States.

“We want to change the perception that what’s going on in the schools is a disaster, a black hole,” Brunschwig says. “A lot of teachers have the potential – they just don’t have the training or support.”

In traditional, lecture-based science classes, students are taught scientific principles, asked to memorize formulae or mathematical equations, and then to plug in numbers and solve for the unknown on a test. If they’re lucky enough to have access to some equipment or a science lab—many schools, especially those in low-income communities, have neither—they might do pre-set experiments out of a textbook that illustrate the principle being studied.

With modeling instruction, student groups carry out key “paradigm” experiments in which they collect their own data, just as scientists and engineers do. They work collectively to represent the data in a variety of ways, and to find a “model” that will summarize and, hopefully, explain the results. Unlike in a traditional science class, students are permitted and even encouraged to make mistakes.

“Scientific models are made to be tested and broken,” Brunschwig says. “Science requires making a lot of mistakes, and progress often comes from building on one’s mistakes. That idea goes back to Archimedes, and that’s the way real scientists and engineers do their work.”

Math (the “M” in STEM) is also infused throughout the workshops, says Brunschwig. “We’re offering content-heavy, pedagogy-heavy instruction that builds knowledge and inspires great teaching,” he says.

Since 2012, STEMteachersNYC has organized three-week summer workshops taught by master STEM modeling teachers, for STEM high school teachers, in an effort to educate and train them in modeling instruction so they can take it back to their classrooms and schools. This summer’s cohort is evenly distributed between public district, public charter and private schools. Twenty-three are from New York City schools, 25 from the tri-state area and other states (California, Maryland and Texas), and two are from Singapore. They are joining the growing number of teachers around the country who are incorporating modeling in their classrooms.

In 2011, Brunschwig brought together eight New York City science teachers who founded STEMteachersNYC as a New York affiliate of the American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA). The national organization was founded by teachers in 2005 to keep an earlier “Modeling Instruction Project” alive after the National Science Foundation ended its funding. AMTA estimates that about 10 percent of U.S. physics teachers, plus a smaller but still significant fraction of American chemistry teachers, have benefited from its Modeling Instruction workshops.

“This can really change the game,” Brunschwig says. “It can happen in cities across the country. Teachers need and want support, and there’s no one better qualified to provide it than other teachers. Local grassroots organizations are ready to take off.”


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