Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Private Universe Project in Science



History of A Private Universe

In 1985, Matthew H. Schneps and Philip M. Sadler of the Science Education Department at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics created A Private Universe, a video program for science teachers. The program opens with a segment in which newly minted Harvard graduates, dressed in caps and gowns, discuss their theories for the causes of the seasons. The Harvard grads, intelligent and articulate, speak eloquently about their ideas, which are, for the most part, erroneous. Through interviews with high school students and teachers, and scenes of classroom activities, A Private Universe demonstrates how a student's preconceived ideas and beliefs can pose critical barriers to learning science, whether the learning environment is a public school or a prestigious private college.

Encouraged by the success of the original video, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics continued the work of A Private Universe by creating the Private Universe Project. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Annenberg Media Math and Science Project, and the Smithsonian Institution, the Private Universe Project has produced a series of interactive teleconferences for teachers, an instructional television series, and a public broadcast series, all of which examine current research on how children learn science and the implications of that research for the classroom.

Origin of the Private Universe Project in Science Workshop

The nine sessions of the Private Universe Project in Science are the edited versions of the nine interactive teleconferences broadcast in the fall of 1994. These teleconferences reached thousands of teachers at sites across the United States, in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Costa Rica. The teleconferences were created to accomplish the following:

  • To gather feedback from K-12 classroom teachers on the video materials and to extrapolate ideas and suggestions from the feedback to use for a future public television broadcast series on science education;
  • To introduce current educational research on how children learn science, including a learning theory applicable to all ages;
  • To share classroom strategies that teachers are using in response to this research.

The remote site participants were asked to fax, telephone, e-mail, and mail in comments; to send examples of their students' work; and to answer specific questions regarding the content of each teleconference. We received thousands of responses, many of which have been incorporated in the written materials as well as in the final version of the broadcast series on science education.

NOTE: Because the workshop tapes are edited versions of live, on-air interactive teleconferences that took place in the fall of 1994, it is important to note that the audiobridge (telephone connection to the studio from the sites around the country) no longer exists and feedback is no longer being gathered.

Format of the Workshop

The teleconferences have been adapted for use as professional development workshops, which can be viewed independently or in sequence. Some elements of the live, on-air teleconferences (i.e., studio site discussions and telephone calls from remote sites), have been retained in the workshop tapes when they are relevant to the topic being discussed. All discussions are built around rare and difficult-to-obtain footage of students discussing their ideas and the question of how students assimilate science concepts. Each program is structured as an experiment that investigates how a student's ideas change or do not change in response to a given teaching strategy.

  1. Each workshop focuses on an educational theme:
    • Workshop One: How can teachers learn to elicit student ideas?
    • Workshop Two: How can teachers map the scope of student ideas?
    • Workshop Three: What are the differences between hands-on and minds-on science education?
    • Workshop Four: When should students be expected to learn abstract fundamental concepts?
    • Workshop Five: How can we teach a science concept that contradicts personal experience?
    • Workshop Six: How might a teacher create a constructivist lesson plan?
    • Workshop Seven: What are the risks and classroom issues in trying out this "new" teaching strategy?
    • Workshop Eight: How can teachers identify and implement realistic strategies for science education?
    • Workshop Nine: How can we enlist the help of education leaders to encourage constructivist approaches in the classroom?
  2. Each workshop explores the themes listed above by showing examples from a specific grade level and posing a broad question within a specific science discipline. However, K-12 science teachers should benefit from each of these programs.

    Workshop One
    Subject: Astronomy
    Age: Grade 9 & college
    Question: What causes the changing seasons?

    Workshop Two
    Subject: Photosynthesis
    Age: Grade 7 & college
    Question: Where does the weight of drywood come from?

    Workshop Three
    Subject: Electricity
    Age: Grades 11, 12 & college
    Question: Can a light bulb be lit with a battery and wire(s)?

    Workshop Four
    Subject: Chemistry
    Age: Grades 3, 6, 8, & 10
    Questions: What is air made of? What is between the particles of air?

    Workshop Five
    Subject: Vision & Light
    Age: Grades 5, 8 & college
    Question: If a mirror is mounted flat against the wall, how long must it be for you to see your whole body in it?

    Workshop Six
    Subject: Gravity & Friction
    Age: Grade 7
    Question: Can a machine be built that will operate forever?

    Workshop Seven
    Subject: Environmental Science
    Age: Grade 4
    Question: What causes an apple to rot?

  3. Each workshop consists of the following components:
    • Video clips of interviews with students and teachers as well as examples of classroom teaching that illustrate the science education issues being discussed;
    • Presentation of current science education research;
    • Activity discussion: Studio and remote site discussions of the science education issues raised in the video clips with a STOP TAPE AND DISCUSS instruction for the viewing workshop audiences;
    • Phone calls (via audiobridge) from remote sites;
    • Explanations of the specific science concept being explored;
    • Examples of feedback from previous workshops;
    • Activities to be completed either during or prior to a workshop.
  4. Each workshop includes a particular cast of characters:

    The Host, Nancy Finkelstein, who introduces and provides the continuity for each workshop;

    The Content Guide, a science teacher educator who is well-versed in the specific science being addressed and who leads the discussion throughout the workshop;

    The on-Site Teachers, six-eight teachers and teacher researchers in the studio who participate in on-site discussions; and

    The remote Site Teachers, those who are watching the teleconference by satellite and who communicate to the studio via audiobridge, fax, or e-mail.


How To Use This Teacher's Guide

The Teacher's Guide is a print supplement to the video programs. Before viewing each video you may want to review the materials included in the Guide. That way, you will be prepared for the discussions and will be familiar with the theme and goals of each workshop. The Guide also includes educational strategies for you to try in your classroom and resources for you to explore.

The sections entitled "Workshop Activity," "Pre-Workshop Activity," and "Workshop Discussion" are meant to promote and stimulate a dialog among the participants. We have found that in some cases, preparation for the workshop is helpful. Thus, we designate a "Pre-Workshop Activity" that should be completed prior to the intended workshop session.

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