Preliminary Judging at the CT Science Fair
Mar 15th, 2012 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Tuesday, March 13, marked my 12th year participating in the Connecticut Science Fair.  Although my first 10 years brought me the joy of my own students presenting their work, the past two have found me in a new role – judging projects.  Since my leave from the classroom, this is probably the one time of year when I most miss not having high school students.  Their and my collaboration to create meaningful projects, get them done, and present them on posters was a highlight of the year for me.

However this year brought me a new highlight. I was asked to head up a new category: the Urban School Challenge.  As part of my responsibilites, I had to recruit judges and I wound up inviting some that have real significance to me.

First, was Ann – Ann was my high school biology teacher.  She was the woman who inspired me to pursue a vocation in science.  I still look fondly back to my 11th grade year when she mentored me in a year-long independent science project.

Second, was Steve – Steve is a regular commenter here, so I am guessing he will probably read this post at some point.  Steve was a student in my graduate class in Methods in Science class.  A “second-careerer,” Steve was perhaps my most thoughtful and forward thinking student in his class.  I think he really understood the value of having students pursue research, and I was so pleased that he got the opportunity to see the process first-hand.

Third, was Tyler – Tyler, now an undergrad at the University of Connecticut majoring in Computer Science was one of my best research students. He participated in these fairs, now works as an intern for me, and most importantly got a chance to see the fair from the “other side.”

For me, it was a somewhat surreal 3-generation reunion.  Most importantly we were there helping to form the future scientists and engineers of the country.

Students long to be creative
Nov 6th, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I facilitated a workshop several Saturdays ago for the Connecticut Science Fair.  The topic was:

Strategies for improving middle school science fair project quality.

The workshop was opened to students and teachers to learn about both the problem finding process.  I challenge the fold, quite frequently asking participants to challenge their own engrained biases to move students to a point where they value and understand the problem fnding process.

This workshop had an “interesting” participant:  an English teacher who felt that a special education student should be able to choose a project that would be deemed low quality by a panel of authentic judges.  This bothers me for several reasons.  The first, is because the teacher finds little to no value in the problem finding process. Problem finding is about exploring, questioning, and thinking to determine an idea and avoiding the hasty, non-invested, often irrelevant and value-lacking idea.  All students can learn about value by recognizing an authentic audience that would appreciate the student’s work.

Second, the teacher thinks that a special needs student is not capable of original, creative thought.  I also reject this idea with years of experience and many students who have challenged the fold to make a meaningful, relevant project.  Several of my identified (SpeEd or 504) students have developed and carried out projects that have been recognized at the NATIONAL level.  They are competing with some of the top students from around the world.  They have demonstrated that perhaps their learning style is different than some of their compatriots.  They learn in a different fashion, and when given the opportunity, shine masterfully.

We do any and all students a disservice when we classify or compartmentalize them based on perceived deficiencies.  We really need to recognize that every student, given motivation, appropriate scaffolding, and high quality mentorship can be successful

Options for Professional Growth Models
Mar 1st, 2010 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

Note: This article is cross-posted in the CSSA Newsletter.  Be a part of the discussion, join my personal learning network, and leave a comment on its contents here.

from: icim-ireland.net

from: icim-ireland.net

Many districts employ a professional growth model for their tenured faculty members for evaluation.  Instead of a traditional clinical observation with post-observation follow-up, teachers can develop a project to improve their own teaching and learning.  This performance-based approach to teacher development and school improvement allows teachers to take ownership of their growth and learning.  Outcomes expected from a professional growth project might include:

  • Empowering teachers to analyze and improve their own strengths and areas needing improvement
  • Empowering teachers to adjust their teaching as compelled by internal desire, student needs, or societal demands
  • Empowering teachers to engage in a search for relevant compasses to guide the thoughtful implementation of education of children.

Undoubtedly empowering teachers to improve should be linked to improved student achievement, which should be measured in many, various, authentic ways.  In essence, growth models can allow teachers to conduct their own inquiry into a relevant, important topic that can improve their instruction.

As science educators, we subscribe to an inquiry philosophy for teaching and learning.  Simply put, inquiry is learning by questioning and investigation. Underlying an effective inquiry program are philosophies associated with problem solving, reasoning, critical thinking, oral and written communication, and the active and reflective use of knowledge.  Inquiry learning has the instructional goals of teaching scientific knowledge and processes of research, while nurturing a commitment to scientific inquiry, promoting open-mindedness with an ability to balance alternative perspectives, and a cooperative spirit and skill.  If we ask our students to do it well, why not be leaders to them by example?

As science education leaders, we have the opportunity to empower our teacher to seek out inquiry professional growth opportunities to better develop their instructional potential.  However, embedded in our responsibility is to develop the leadership potential in each one of our constituents.  Teachers often have amazing skills, knowledge, and dispositions that they should be encouraged to share with others. 

How do we empower our teachers to share?  We can encourage them to include in their professional growth plans opportunities to share their knowledge with others as part of their end products with the Science Education Community:

  • Presenting a workshop at a district or school professional development session
  • Presenting a workshop at the Connecticut Science Teachers Association Annual Conference
  • Writing an article for the Connecticut Journal of Science Education or the CSTA newsletter.
  • Writing an article for a national journal: The Science Teacher, The Journal of Chemistry Education, The American Biology Teacher, The Physics Teacher

These are activities that many teachers would not consider doing on their own, but with gentle, supportive encouragement from a compassionate leader, they might.  The courage to step beyond oneself, to take a risk and be willing to share is not always easy, but we do our profession a disservice when great ideas exist and they are not shared on a larger stage. 

We ask our students to share their work in authentic settings.  Perhaps it’s time we evaluate ourselves and our colleagues as life-long learners and ask if we collectively are willing to take the risks that we expect from our students: to develop our own inquiry skills, leadership, and innovation and have a willingness to share with an authentic audience who would find value – our own peers.

Feb 18th, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

My wife and I enjoyed a movie last night, The Cider House Rules.  We are a bit behind the times when it comes to movies, but have been making a rapid comeback since we started our Netflix subscription.

A brief introduction synopsis from the Internet Movie Database:

Homer is an orphan in remote St. Cloud, Maine. Never adopted, he becomes the favorite of orphanage director Dr. Larch, who imparts his full medical knowledge on Homer, who becomes a skilled, albeit unlicensed, physician. But Homer yearns for a self-chosen life outside the orphanage. When Wally and pregnant Candy visit the orphanage Dr. Larch provides medically safe, albeit illegal, abortions Homer leaves with them to work on Wally’s family apple farm. Wally goes off to war, leaving Homer and Candy alone together. What will Homer learn about life and love in the cider house? What of the destiny that Dr. Larch has planned for him?

What stood out for me in this movie was the relationship of a teenage boy with his mentor and his desire to spread his wings and seek out his own life.  Homer, played by Tobey Maguire, is a young orphan who learns to be a physician, even though he never attends medical school.  From a situated perspective, he becomes a brokered member of the community of practice – receiving his cognitive apprenticeship from his mentor, Dr. Larch. 

Homer respects and honors the relationship with his mentor, but realizes that he needs to grow beyond the walls of the hospital/orphanage that has been his home his entire life.  He seeks new experiences as an apple picker and a lobsterman – potential careers that are not necessarily on par with his cognitive ability.  He does this because he has the desire to experience a more visceral life – to interact with others, to value hard work, and certainly the feeling of independence.

Dr. Larch struggles with Homer’s departure from his lifelong home, and at one point comments “I think we may have lost him to the world. . .”  Dr. Larch is conflicted with the desire to have Homer work in partnership with him and allowing Homer to experience the world without the constraints of pleasing and staying with him.

As a mentor, this is certainly the monumental challenge – to give a young mind the skills, dispositions, and knowledge of a discipline-domain, while allowing the student the freedom to grown and move beyond the experience.  We are often selfish, but the greatest gift we really can give our mentees is the gift of self-direction, self-reliance, and independence.

As a research teacher/mentor, I have been fortunate enough to see some of the long-term results of these relationships, and am amazed how these students, now doctors, scientists, as well as a host of other professionals, recognize the importance of the relations they had with me. 

It’s too bad Dr. Larch didn’t get to see Homer at the end of the film – if you don’t know why – rent it.  I’m sure you’ll see why I could relate to this film so well.

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