Tuesday, June 16, 2009

At the zoo, teachers learn ways to improve science education

The crowd assembled at Zoo Atlanta’s Wildlife Theatre, just like many others before them. They watched as a trainer induced a macaw to speak, and as a crow used its beak to paint a colorful, Jackson Pollock-like piece of abstract art.

But unlike the typical tourist, the crowd was a group of Georgia middle and high school teachers, getting a lesson in animal behavior as part of a teacher professional development program to improve neuroscience literacy, held June 8-12 and sponsored by the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, headquartered at Georgia State University.

The Center for Behavioral Neuroscience is a collaboration between Georgia State and other Atlanta-area universities, devoted to expanding knowledge in the basic neurobiology of social behaviors.

“It’s really very interesting, and it has allowed me to be able to answer the ‘why’ questions in my labs," said Rebecca Durham, a seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Heritage School in Coweta County. “It allows me to address what mechanisms in our brains cause certain behaviors.”

Laura Carruth, assistant professor of neuroscience and coordinator of the workshops, said that the program is aimed at helping teachers teach science using current information, as well as to foster better experiences for students.

“The goal of the program is to encourage their students to develop a love of science, and to think scientifically, as well as to develop an appreciation for animals, animal classes and animal behavior,” said Carruth.

Teachers spent the week in workshops devoted to neuroscience and teaching, and also received up-close opportunities to learn more about animal behaviors. They will receive professional development unit credits as part of the workshops, and will also return in November to learn more about amphibians and reptiles, and to follow up on what they’ve learned through the presentation of lesson plans.

Carruth said the teachers will be able to apply what they’ve learned on multiple levels in the classroom.

“Depending upon what teachers’ needs are, educators teaching older students can bring in science at multiple levels, ranging from anatomy and structures of the brain, all the way to functions and behaviors,” she said. “Younger teachers can focus on topics such as behaviors, classification and diversity.”

Improving teacher education is critical to producing students who are better able to take on critical positions in the sciences in an economy that is more dependent on science and math knowledge, according to a report released June 10 by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, entitled “The Opportunity Equation: Transforming Mathematics and Science Education for Citizenship and the Global Economy.”

The report urges teachers to work with scientists, as well as other professionals in technical fields to show students the relevance and application of science in their lives -- something which the June CBN workshop helped to do.

Another summertime CBN program includes the Institute on Neuroscience, from June 8 to July 31, where high schoolers are gaining an opportunity to learn more about neuroscience, through hands-on activities and discussions directed by faculty members, post-doctoral researchers, and undergraduate and graduate students from CBN member institutions, followed by five weeks of mentored laboratory research.

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