Chico State reshaping scientific-teaching method

New department focuses on educating the educators

PRACTICE WHAT YOU TEACH<br>Professor Joel Mintzes knows his way around a microscope, but what really excites him is when elementary teachers and students get to work with one at Chico State’s Hands-On Lab.

Professor Joel Mintzes knows his way around a microscope, but what really excites him is when elementary teachers and students get to work with one at Chico State’s Hands-On Lab.

Photo By Evan Tuchinsky

Think you’re smarter than a Harvard grad? Depending on your grade-school science teacher, you may well be when it comes to the workings of the natural world.

Twenty years ago, the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics conducted an experiment. Film crews asked ninth-graders at a Boston-area school and outgoing seniors at Harvard University’s graduation to explain why and how the seasons change. Surprisingly, the same answers surfaced both places—incorrect answers (such as the Earth’s orbit is elliptical and brings the planet closer to the sun during the summer).

That’s less an indictment of the Ivy League than an indicator of something else.

“Everyone—regardless of gender, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, educational background—has problems understanding conceptual science,” Professor Joel Mintzes said, explaining the research to which he’s contributed for decades.

“We are living in an age of science and technology,” he added, “so many of the decisions people have to make are rooted in scientific concepts, yet the average person’s understanding of science is a mix of misconceptions, superstitions and ignorance.”

That’s part of the impetus for an initiative called STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Chico State President Paul Zingg is a big proponent, evidenced by the summit his university is hosting Sept. 12 to examine how math and science are taught. What’s more, he signed off on a new department to help tackle the problem.

The Department of Science Education operates under the auspices of Chico State’s College of Natural Sciences. Zingg and Dean L. J. Houpis lured Mintzes back to California after 30 years at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, to serve as department chairman.

Science Education has five faculty members and eight associate faculty members, all with dual appointments in other disciplines. Mintzes, for instance, is a cellular biologist; physics, chemistry and geology are also represented.

Adding a department amid a budget crisis may seem incongruous, but Zingg considers this “a good move. It sends a clear signal about the commitment of the College of Natural Sciences and the university to play a strong, lead role in addressing the math/science education needs locally, regionally, statewide—even nationally, for this is a national challenge.

“This is a move not in isolation,” he continued via e-mail. “It connects to a deep orientation of Dean Houpis and his colleagues to build on the Hands-On Lab, the addition in recent years of several new math and science education faculty [members], and cooperation with Dean Phyllis Fernlund and faculty in the School of Education.”

The science-ed department, while rare, is part and parcel of a mandate for California State universities to, in Mintzes’ words, “substantially increase the number of qualified science teachers in our regions.”

Chico State’s region comprises a chunk of Northern California that’s “as big as the state of Ohio—rural areas in dire need of science teachers,” Mintzes said. In grades six through eight, for instance, “fewer than 50 percent of science teachers are qualified by state standards to teach science. What that means is, much of the science taught at middle schools is taught by people with multi-subject credentials.”

Teachers who don’t know science well, or find it intimidating, are more likely to resort to read-and-recite methods for a subject that lends itself to hands-on instruction.

Chico State already had the Hands-On Lab in the Physical Sciences Building. Now, just across the creek in Holt Hall, there’s Science Ed.

“If we want to take the problem seriously,” Mintzes said, “we have to go back and start anew—design classes for elementary teachers [in line with the manual Science Framework for California Public Schools]. The book itself doesn’t give them the background in science, so we try to give them that background and strategies for teaching.”

Which brings us back to the four seasons and the Earth’s revolution around the sun, which actually is fairly uniform; it’s the tilt of the axis that affects seasons.

“I do think there’s a problem when large numbers of people don’t understand science,” Mintzes said. “The focus of this department and all STEM education is to encourage a science-literate population.”