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Project LEARN: An end and some great beginnings

The first phase of Project LEARN is ending, but its impact is not. LEARN (Laboratory Experience in Atmospheric Research at NCAR) is a three-year teacher-training project funded by NSF and directed by educators Joyce Gellhorn and Carol McLaren and NCAR scientist Patrick Kennedy. For three consecutive summers, 39 middle-school teachers from four states (California, Colorado, North Carolina, and Texas) came to Boulder, Colorado, for a carefully planned series of three-week workshops. Here, working side-by-side with NCAR and UOP scientists, they received intensive training in atmospheric sciences, shared teaching techniques, and gained meanful, practical experience in conducting scientific research.

LEARN is not a finite effort. The whole idea behind it is to set something in motion that will continue and spread. One of the core notions is a teacher-to-teacher chain reaction in which these 39 teachers return to their school districts to share their new knowledge and hands-on activities with other teachers. Already, through in-service training and educational conferences, they have reached more than 800 additional teachers around the country, and, through them, more than 83,000 students. And classrooms around the country will benefit from the instructional materials and activities produced by the project. LEARN teachers and scientists have collaborated to develop hands-on teaching modules in five areas: ozone, atmospheric dynamics, the water cycle, greenhouse gases, and biosphere-atmosphere interactions. The teachers tested the modules in their classrooms last year, and Project LEARN staff are now working with a panel of teachers to revise them for wider use.

The first summer workshop, in July of 1992, emphasized background information and fundamental concepts such as heat transfer, convection, condensation, and evaporation. The program included leadership training to help prepare the teachers for setting up their own workshops back home. The 1993 summer session included more time for group endeavors, such as developing classroom activities and planning in- service training sessions for other teachers. It was during this workshop that scientists and teachers teamed up to begin developing the five teaching modules.

One focus of the last (1994) workshop was editing and revising the modules. The teachers also spent two days working individually with scientists, and for many this was the most exciting and rewarding experience of all. (See the sidebar for some of their comments.) Some learned about cloud physics by growing ice crystals in a cold-room laboratory (cutting up a hailstone to examine its crystal pattern was a huge hit). Others measured isoprenes emitted by plants or took temperatures on the slopes behind the NCAR Mesa Laboratory. Still other teachers launched a weather balloon, visited a radar site, or took airborne measurements from research aircraft. They learned how to coordinate a scientific field program, tested their skills at weather forecasting, and experimented with Mosaic and other means of accessing the informational wealth of the Internet.

Many called this time with a scientist "wonderful." They remarked repeatedly how much it meant to them to be doing something hands-on, something "real," and not made up. The rewards were not one-sided, however. It was also a special experience for the scientists who participated. Their reports make it clear how committed they were to giving the teachers a meaningful experience, and how much thought and effort they devoted to that end. Every one said they would do it again and many said they learned some valuable lessons themselves.

Meanwhile, in cooperation with NCAR, NOAA, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Project LEARN is now sponsoring "Science Saturdays," a series of eight free workshops for teachers of grades 4 through 12 who live within commuting distance of Boulder. The daylong workshops are set up along the same lines as the summer workshops, with presentations and demonstrations by scientists, discussions, question- and-answer sessions, and experiments and activities for the classroom. Some Project LEARN teachers are also involved in planning and conducting the workshops. "What we want to do is set up a model to continue beyond LEARN," says Gellhorn.

Gellhorn, McLaren, and Kennedy are working to continue the project in other ways. They have submitted a proposal to NSF for a follow-on project aimed at providing isolated rural teachers with access to resources and scientific expertise.

There are, and will be, many different outcomes of the project, for some time to come. LEARN's teachers have built on their experience in many ways. Two, for example, have developed a pamphlet on ozone. Another teacher's students convinced a local TV weathercaster to issue a daily statement of potential exposure to ultraviolet radiation. During the hurricane season, classrooms in North Carolina and Texas practiced hurricane tracking. The chain reaction Project LEARN's planners had hoped for is well under way. For more information, contact administrative secretary Christine Hanson, 303-497-8107; or chanson@ncar.ucar.edu.

Feedback on LEARN

Both teachers and scientists were given questionnaires to fill out after their time working together. These comments are taken from their answers.

From teachers:

"What I liked best was going over basic principles because it served as a good review and confirmed that I have indeed learned something. I was quite pleased with how much I understood."

"I thoroughly enjoyed the hands-on experience. It works! The scientist was so thoroughly motivated and inspirational!"

From scientists:

"In general, I feel that national research centers can and should make a contribution to education. So, this was worthwhile from the onset. At the end, the teachers seemed very pleased with their experience and that made it even more rewarding."

The best part was "their interest and excitement at doing some things that have become routine for me. I did not appreciate before how very important it is for them to do something real--not be talked at, or shown things, but for them to do some things."

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Edited by Carol Rasmussen, carolr@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Mon Apr 3 17:39:58 MDT 2000