In the middle of one of the Washington University quads is this wonderfully whimsical re-imagining of August Rodin’s The Thinker – a lanky looking rabbit, assuming the well-known, contemplative pose. I just returned from a quick trip to St. Louis and, while there, the sculpture caught my fancy. A nice flash of quirkiness on an otherwise, very traditional looking brick campus.
I traveled down there to join my friend and colleague, Liz Dorland, for a participatory media workshop for the Life Science for a Global Community (LSGC). This is an amazing NSF-funded program, run out of Washington University by PhyllisBalcerzak, for high school life science teachers. Teachers accepted into the program come to Wash U for a three-week, residential summer program for two summers running. Then, during the academic year, they take online courses and put what they learned in the summer into action in their own classrooms. During the 3-week summer program, they get top-notch mini courses from some of the best Wash U faculty on topics like neurobiology, photosynthesis, and genetics. The teachers work together, as a cohort, to do experiments, go on field trips, start their own research projects and take what they learned back to their home campuses. At the end of the two-year program, they’ve earned an MA in biology from Wash U, along with a community of like-minded colleagues that will last into the future of their teaching career. They also stand a little taller – as a result of their expanded science knowledge, research expertise, and professional development.
Phyllis invited Liz and I to come work with the teachers on their use of new social media and web 2.0 tools – for the LSGC projects, for their students back at home, and with each other. We had two sessions with them – Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. On Friday afternoon we gave them an introduction to blogging (with WordPress), wikis (using Wikispaces), and podcasts (using cell phones, Flip video cameras, Garageband, and Audacity). The workshops went well and the teachers caught on very quickly. They came up with some pretty creative suggestions for using these tools with their students:
A multi-author blog to document a field trip
A science “newsreel” created by students – shown weekly to the school
Collaborate with students from another school – pool data
A wiki site for each course they teach, with a page for each student to hand in lab reports where the teacher could discuss the lab report on the discussion page and keep a record of the year
Students use video to record short tutorials on how to use various lab instruments (post them on a wiki site)
Student blogs used to reflect on their labs (or just reflect in general)
Create a podcast to narrate a field trip to a zoo or museum – turn it into a scavenger hunt
Students video interviews with experts (parents, other teachers, professors at local universities)
Use short podcasts as vehicles for reflection (as in, “before you leave the lab/test, just record a few minutes of your impressions/take-home lessons/what was the main point”)
Podcasts as assessments
Student-created podcast libraries of tough topics (use for future classes)
Wonderful stuff. And, as always, when I meet with teachers, I was inspired by their persistence, endless creativity, and their overwhelming enthusiasm for their students. Of course there were low moments too. Like when I listened to them talk about their frustrations – school districts that blocked all the web sites they’d love to use with their students, administrators who seemed bent on foiling their every new plan, lack of resources, over-crowded classrooms (40 students in an AP course?!)…Sigh. And one bleak moment when a teacher asked me, “but if we use all of these web sites, podcasts, and blogs, it just seems that the students will no longer need teachers and we’ll be putting ourselves out of a job.” Oh, no. Guess I didn’t do as good a job as I hoped I had at the beginning when I talked with them about all of these skills their students were going to need (that they don’t have now)….Like how to read in linked environments, how to validate information they find online, understanding the notion of a “digital footprint”, knowing how to work privacy settings on social networking sites, how to produce a safe and effective video, how to look for their teachers, how to behave in an online community, how to leverage a network effect. Who is going to teach them all of those mission-critical skills if not their teachers? That is our job – and we should be taking it very seriously.
On Saturday, we put together an (optional) Second Life workshop for them. After a hard week of all-day sessions, we were glad to welcome 10 of the 30 teachers who came to the session. They arrived, registered, got their avatar, and went in world for the first time. In three hours, they went from never having been in a virtual world to flying, teleporting, managing their inventory, chatting, joining groups, and making friends. It was wonderful to see. Here are a few shots of our cadre of newbies exploring a really interactive museum on the American Chemical Society’s island (check out the simulation of nylon formation) and running through the forest on Tempura Island. I suspect they were frustrated to learn that they couldn’t bring their (under 18 years old) high school students into this virtual world but the way that Liz approached this was to suggest SL as a professional development tool for them. A place to experiment, to meet other like-minded teachers from all over the world, and – possibly – a place for them to meet and collaborate with each other, once they are no longer together on the Wash U campus. We wound up our short SL romp with a fireworks display – everyone lighting sparklers on a platform, 300 feet up in the air over Jokaydia, with the sun dimmed for maximum effect. It was quite a morning.