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Taking Measure

Just a Standard Blog

The NIST Summer Institute for Middle School Science Teachers: An Educator's Journey

Group of people under a tree
Credit: F. Webber/NIST

The NIST Summer Institute for Middle School Science Teachers, Class of 2016.

I was always fascinated with science. However, I steered away from pursuing science beyond high school because there was too much math involved (and “MATH,” a four-letter word if ever I saw one, and I never really got along). As a result, much of my teaching experience has centered around things that came more naturally to me. In fact, though this will be my 11th year teaching, it is only my third year teaching science.

Throughout my career as an educator, I have had the joy of taking care of a wide variety of “classroom animals,” including a Chinese water dragon, a soft-shell turtle, a kingsnake, chickens, a tarantula, and even a fresh-water eel. This year, as a sixth-grade science teacher, I’m excited to be adding trout to my repertoire through the “Trout in the Classroom” program!

Coming to NIST to learn about science, however, was an entirely different kind of animal.

From Expectation to Reality: Mind Blown

When applying for the NIST Summer Institute for Middle School Science Teachers, I was hoping to meet scientists that I could invite to my classroom, learn some exciting experiments to do with my students, and get a better handle on some scientific concepts that I haven’t taught in a while. The Institute included all these experiences, but it was also SO MUCH MORE.

From the very first day, learning about the breadth and depth of the work they do at NIST was so eye-opening that it really changed the way I viewed the world. I came away stunned by how little I knew about what goes on here. I realized that I take for granted just how much science goes into every aspect of life.

For example, the entire field of metrology, the science of measurement, was foreign to me. Never before had I stopped to think about how a kilogram is defined or even how much work went into creating, maintaining and disseminating each unit of measurement. Now I look at every object and process in my day-to-day life with the question, “What science went into this? What kind of thinking was needed to create and sustain this?”

Educating an Educator

My fellow science teachers and I had time for a little levity while we learned about the physics of music. 

Without a doubt, each scientist we met presented absolutely fascinating content. A few sessions into the experience, it occurred to me that each of our instructors was trained in a scientific field, they were not educators. As such, pedagogy, the science of teaching, was one of the few things in which the members of the audience had more expertise than the presenters. Yet, each presenter had their own teaching style and way of sharing their knowledge. Many of the scientists had created hands-on experiences to make their abstract content more comprehensible. Others had detailed lab plans that we could use to replicate their experiments in our classrooms. And some were so charismatic and clever and made the content so engaging that, even if the topic were completely unknown to the lay person (like say, neutron research?), we could still follow along. Others, though they had intriguing topics and a huge wealth of knowledge, had more trouble teaching us because they did not have all the tricks of the teaching trade in their back pockets like we did.

This made me reflect on my own teaching. There are some days when I bulldoze through a particular lesson that has been put into a format that is really not conducive to learning because it “keeps up with the curriculum timeline," a mantra pounded into teachers from the moment they receive their plan books to the moment that they retire. Seeing the scientists’ different approaches reminded me that it is not only what you teach, but also how you teach, that makes concepts comprehensible to students.

As a side note: major props to ALL of our presenters because, ironically, teachers often make the unruliest of students.

We did manage to keep the spitballs to a minimum, though.

Empathy as an Experience

Dat Duthinh shook up our understanding about earthquakes. 

I often hear other teachers say “it’s not that hard” when referring to a particular concept they are trying to get across to a student who is struggling. In reality, however, the student might be struggling because it really is that hard to them.

Coming to NIST as a student made me aware that, as a teacher, I have incorrectly assumed that learning is as easy (and enjoyable) for everyone else as it has always been for me. About five minutes into our tour of the NIST museum, I realized that I’ve never been in a learning situation where I felt so intimidated by how little I knew about the content. These two weeks at NIST made me think that there may be many students in my classroom who feel the same way about what we cover in my class. They may be saying to themselves, just like I did when first looking at the schedule of topics for the Summer Institute, “This is so far above my head that I will never be able to keep up.”

Not to fear though! This anxiety I felt was extremely helpful because I will take that memory with me when I head back into the classroom this year. In particular, I was struck by the words of NIST earthquake expert Dat Duthinh when he said “I’ve worked here for many years, and I am still humbled every day.” Even world experts in one field can be just babes in the woods in another.

I know now that I need to tell that struggling student that it’s okay admit that you don’t know something. After all, not knowing is what makes learning possible. I think that feeling should excite and motivate us. We should see it as a hill to climb, not a roadblock.

The Amenities of Adulthood

Learning about dominant and recessive genes, and making puppies, with popsicle sticks. My puppy had large black eyes with shaggy brown fur and floppy ears, just like the one I drew in class.

As public school educators, we’ve grown accustomed to doing without many of the privileges that most adults take for granted. It was such a treat to enjoy some first-class “adulting” while on the NIST campus. For example, being able to take breaks as needed may seem like a given at your workplace, but it’s a rarity among educators to be able to step out of a classroom without a bell or superior telling you it’s time first. Being able to enjoy some personal time at lunch, or even having a lunch that is not filled with responsibilities (lessons to plan, papers to grade, etc.), was very uplifting, even liberating.

(Also, before coming to NIST, I had never eaten at a cafeteria where both the variety and flavors of the food made me look forward to lunch so much.)

Perhaps the most liberating thing was exploring the grounds. How nice it was to be able to eat lunch under the enormous low-hanging tree canopy, or by a fountain, or in a quiet room, or while hobnobbing with real-life scientists. Many of us enjoyed taking miniature field trips to a place we lovingly referred to as “Neverland,” a grove where all of the different state trees are planted. My favorite “adult amenity” was the farmer’s market on Tuesdays. Although I must admit this treat was bittersweet because the peaches were so fantastic that they have ruined me for all other peaches in the future.

It may seem silly to dedicate an entire portion of a blog to this, but “adulting” at NIST made me realize how often, in a career centered around children, teachers end up living by the very rules we make the children follow. The NIST experience allowed my colleagues and I to be “grown-ups,” even if only for a little while.

And we loved it.

A Final Plea

Being fortunate enough to be a member of the Summer Institute for Middle School Science Teachers was truly incredible. I must say, and I know several of my fellow students are in total agreement with me here, that we learned more science content in these two weeks than we did in our entire undergraduate programs. My only request is that NIST continue to come up with ways to bring educators onto campus to witness the awesome scientific resources they have available. Teachers are hungry for cutting-edge science to show our students, and with any luck, we’ll inspire a few to pursue a career in the sciences who might not have otherwise. I think I speak for the entire 2016 class when I say that this has been a truly humbling, inspiring, invigorating, and enlightening experience that we will treasure for years to come!

About the author

Laura Karns

Laura Karns teaches middle school science for Montgomery County Public Schools in Germantown, Maryland. She earned both her undergraduate and graduate at Salisbury University. When she is not working...

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