NORMAL — Young people aren’t the only ones who enjoy learning — and, perhaps, learn better — by getting out and doing something rather than sitting inside and listening.
Their teachers do, too.
At least, that was true for a group of 15 high school science teachers on a field trip recently as part of a two-week workshop on teaching science through student research.
The teachers, from as far away as Chicago and East St. Louis, barely seemed to notice the rain, except when a few drops made it through the trees and splashed on their field notebooks.
Instead, they listened and took notes as Roger Anderson, Illinois State University professor emeritus, guided them through the Parklands Foundation Merwin Nature Preserve, located along the Mackinaw River, northeast of Lake Bloomington.
“Kids get excited — everybody gets excited — when they are able to do something hands on,” said Yvonne John, who teaches in Naperville. “We want to encourage that inquisitive nature.”
The Next Generation Science Standards that are part of the “common core” education standards in Illinois put greater emphasis on students learning by doing.
As Anderson described various plants and research that has been done at the preserve, the teachers-turned-students were thinking about their own research ideas and data collection they would do a couple days later.
For some, the research would be a new experience.
“I may make them a little uncomfortable, and I’m OK with that because they’re going to make their students uncomfortable,” said workshop leader Darci Harland of ISU’s Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology.
Harland is the author of “The STEM Student Research Handbook.” STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
The purpose of the research approach is to make students “more scientifically literate,” Harland said. Her message to teachers is, “Don’t tell students, let them experience it.”
Janelle Czapar already has been doing that in her first year as a teacher at El Paso-Gridley High School.
“It was interesting to hear them whine about having to do it,” when her students first learned they had to do research projects, she said.
But as the projects continued, she heard from parents and others about how excited the students were.
“It was a different experience for them and the appreciated that,” Czapar said.
Olympia High School is “ahead of the curve,” said Jarrod Rackauskas, who has taught there for eight years. The school has an aquaponics and hydroponics program and students have been doing research on the fish and plants that are part of that project, he said.
“My goal is to do more physical science research instead of life science,” Rackauskas said.
He already obtained several ideas in the first couple days of the workshop, including a “spud cannon” — a homemade potato shooter — for students to measure pressure, speed, force and how different sizes of barrels affect those measurements.
Marty Warren, who teaches in East St. Louis, called the workshop “a great opportunity” and intends to share what she learns with the rest of her department.
That’s among the aims of the program, which will include follow-up contacts throughout the year.
Harland said one objective is to have participants develop lessons plans for student research projects and share those lesson plans online for other teachers to use and adapt. Those might be a project covered in a two-week unit in an overall class or one embedded in a yearlong course, she said.
The research-oriented approach moves some teachers out of their comfort zone, Harland said, because “teachers, by nature, want to know what they’re getting into before they get into it and that’s not how research is done.”
Rackauskas agreed that teachers like to have all the answers but said, “We can’t all be experts.”
He thinks it’s important for teachers to be willing to say, “I don’t know” or “I’ll find out,” and liked the idea of “having students getting out in the community and finding mentors” who fit their interests.
Looking at his fellow teachers, Rackauskas said, “We all found our way here because someone took an interest in us.”