Felicia Moore Mensah | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Felicia Moore Mensah

Many elementary school science teachers lack preparation in the subject. A TC course takes them back to the lab and brings them up to speed
Improving Their Bench Strength
Many elementary school science teachers lack preparation in the subject. A TC course takes them back to the lab and brings them up to speed
Jo Jo Farrell teachers his fifth grade class at at P.S. 161 in Manhattan  five subjects, including science. In fact, he is the school’s only science teacher, despite having dodged science and math in college and only dimly remembering some physics from high school.
“Science is a weakness of mine,” Farrell said one evening this past December, clicking to the Web site for the New York City Scope and Sequence science requirements that all public school teachers must cover. There were 11 pages of requirements for grades one through six, including lessons on the scientific method, earth science, food and nutrition, ecosystems, simple and complex machines, weather, biological classification systems, and the interdependence of climate and ecosystems. “It’s pretty terrifying. You get a textbook and a teachers guide, but it’s a lot to juggle. Basically, the first year, you’re still trying to figure out how to sharpen pencils and line kids up.”
According to international standardized tests, American students are falling behind other countries in science knowledge. Schools are under pressure to improve their science instruction and begin it in the earlier grades, as opposed to middle or high school. But there’s a major hurdle: many teachers like Farrell have not been formally prepared to carry out the charged task of hooking young people on science.
That’s why, this past fall, Teachers College offered a new professional development course -- “Content, Pedagogy, and Practice in Elementary Science Education” – to teachers at elementary schools that are part of the College’s General Electric Foundation Harlem Schools Partnership grant.
The course is the brainchild of Felicia Moore Mensah, Associate Professor of Science Education. Initially, Mensah and Janell Catlin, the Partnership’s director, set out to improve teachers’ classroom skills. But they soon discovered that many of the teachers were just as determined to improve their knowledge of  science. For Mensah, skills and commitment go hand-in-glove. “The more content you have, the more confidence you develop in the classroom for teaching science,” she says.
Mensah recruited alumna Amanda Gunning, her current post-doctoral fellow, to teach the professional development class with her. Gunning, a former high school physics teacher, completed a dissertation study in May, and confirmed through research that elementary school teachers lack confidence both in their general knowledge of science and in their ability to develop and execute science lesson plans. Although elementary school teachers are increasingly tapped to teach science, most states do not require them to specialize in a science or liberal arts discipline.
“It’s not standard that you would get science, or physical science, in elementary teacher preparation,” said Mensah. “A lot of my students at TC have never had a physics class. Thus, the content emphasis for this professional development course was physics.”
Mensah’s class has many appealing features. It offers teachers lots of hands-on classroom activities that are both engaging and impart real knowledge and content. One evening in December, Gunning took the teachers on an online tour of science materials with “tons of interactive simulations.” She showed them a Web site on weight and measurement from the University of Colorado at Boulder that lets children choose a sleeping dog, a crate of books, a refrigerator, or a filing cabinet, and select the number of newtons (units of force) needed to move each of them. A biology site illustrates natural selection by simulating forces (food, wolves) that affect the growth of a rabbit colony. Other sites offered simulations of static electricity, circuits, laws governing the behavior of gases, gravity, the solar system, nuclear fission and the greenhouse effect.
The simulations looked a lot like digital games, a selling point with kids. “Students enjoy it,” Gunning said, “because they get to be online.” She had chosen the Web sites to help the teachers complete their final assignment: designing physics lessons they could use in their classrooms.
Another major draw of Mensah’s class: it  gives teachers the chance to collaborate. Certainly that was true for Denise Wynn-Boyd, Michelle Broderick and Ines Cayambe, teachers at P.S 153 who signed up together. The three began meeting after school on Fridays to review the physics material they had learned and design lessons for their own classrooms. They came to be known as the “Six O’clock Club,” because they could still be found working on Friday evenings, when their colleagues were long gone.
“We stayed together because of the camaraderie and the desire to succeed,” Wynn-Boyd says. Eventually, a vice principal at the school took notice and began sitting in. She decided to make the group’s work available to other teachers at the school.
The payoff in the classroom has been striking. Broderick and Wynn-Boyd are now using material from a “Full Option Science System,” or FOSS Kit. The kits are provided system-wide by the New York City Department of Education, but often remain unopened by teachers who don’t have time to explore the material or who simply feel intimidated by science. Last year as part of the Harlem Schools Partnership, TC offered Saturday workshops and a Summer Science Institute to partnership schools and teachers in learning how to teach with the FOSS kits. Mensah and Catlin helped to organize and teach these professional development sessions, along with Mark and Helen Levy, science trainers who conduct professional development workshops for teachers on how to use the FOSS kits.
One day in December, with the yearend holiday break two days away, Broderick and Wynn-Boyd showed a short video about rocks and minerals to their second grade science class at P.S. 153. Afterward, Broderick, moved to the front of the room. “What is a rock?” she asked.
Four hands went up. She gestured to one student, who answered, “Rocks are broken off parts of the earth.”
“That’s right.” Broderick smiled. “Rocks are part of the earth. They are part of nature.”
Broderick, who is also a teacher in the school’s science and technology cluster and teaches in gifted and talented as well as regular classrooms, helped the students – many of whom are recent immigrants to New York –  list and define new words from the video: “geologist” (someone who studies rocks and minerals); “luster” (the way sunlight reflects off of it); and “texture” (the way something feels to the touch). Then Wynn-Boyd  recorded the words and definitions on newsprint taped to an easel. Together, she and the students listed the different properties of rocks:  hard as diamonds or as soft as talc; rough or smooth; shiny or dull.
“Rocks rock!” she concluded, as Wynn-Boyd moved the children to rug that had a map of the United States printed on it, with the Rocky Mountains making a jagged line down the West.
“Rocks are under me!” cried a girl named Natalia, as she plopped down on Montana.
After rug time, the children returned to their desks and wrote about what they learned in their science notebooks.
A few days earlier, at their last meeting of the professional development course in December, the teachers had demonstrated their final projects for the course, in which they designed and presented a science lesson for their own classrooms. Carolyn Campis, a third-grade teacher at P.S./I.S. 180, and her colleague, Lauren Olerio, delivered a lesson on simple machines in which the students would build a two-wheel pulley. They partnered with Chris Faulkner of P.S. 36, the only science cluster teacher in the group. During a lighter moment, Faulkner hitched up his pants to dramatize the difference between “wedges” and “wedgies.”
Jo Jo Farrell demonstrated two lessons on global warming. To incorporate a literacy component, he said he plans to have his students write letters to New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg about what the city can do to stop climate change.
 Broderick, Wynn-Boyd and Cayambe staged lessons about different types of forces and motion – push and pull, friction, gravity and magnetism – all precursors to studying simple machines.
“This was amazing for me,” Wynn-Boyd said afterward. “As an educator, I am always looking to stretch myself, and stretch my kids. How do I get that gifted and talented student to become more interested in science, and how do I get that student who is struggling to participate?”
Both Mensah and Gunning proclaimed the inaugural run of the class a huge success. “I’m just so happy with their final projects,” Gunning said. “My goal was to have them create something that they could really use in the classroom.”
Mensah added, “My goal as an science educator is to have more science in elementary schools, and with these teachers, I am certain that in their schools, science will be happening.”

Published Monday, Jan. 31, 2011


More Stories