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A Hands-On Sabbatical Experience with the FOSS Development Team

Dr. Joseph J. Gerencher, Jr., Department of Physics and Earth Sciences, Moravian College, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
September 03, 2004 | Professional Development

Top image: A view of the Lawrence Hall of Science looking toward the San Francisco Bay and the University of California campus in Berkeley.

How do you stay current in your teaching of the education course "Science in the Elementary School" when the bulk of your teaching responsibilities fall in other academic areas? This is probably a not-too-uncommon situation for many professors of science education methods courses at small colleges. In my particular case, my regular faculty responsibilities involve teaching three separate, unrelated lab-science courses within the science division, as well as teaching the science methods course for our elementary education majors. When I am pursuing interests or developing materials for one area, I feel I am automatically falling behind in the others. Sabbaticals are a wonderful opportunity to renew, reinvigorate, and refresh.

In my elementary science methods course, which is taken by pre-service elementary teachers during their junior year, students perform hands-on activities to experience investigative science in its many modes. I use materials and approaches from several contemporary elementary science curricula by having the students conduct selected activities drawn from the publishers' products. My lessons from the FOSS program were modeled to emulate the FOSS presentations that I had experienced at meetings of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). But I felt my personal experience was too limited, and my resources were too meager for these experiences to do justice to the importance of the FOSS program in today's science-education environment. With more insight into the FOSS program and how it was and continues to be developed, and with more experience with the materials and recommended approaches, I could become a more effective teacher of my own students in the elementary science methods course.

I had made contact with Larry Malone and Linda De Lucchi, co-directors of the FOSS program, during some FOSS presentations at a previous NSTA meeting. Using this brief but important connection, I contacted them at the Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS), University of California, Berkeley, and made arrangements to spend a week with them and the FOSS development team. The experience was valuable well beyond my greatest expectation. I was warmly received and, although space is very tight at LHS, I was always given some space to work each day. While I was there, the team was modifying some elementary lessons and developing investigations and the necessary support materials for one of the middle school courses. They included me in the team that went into some of the local schools to field test the investigations and supporting materials. Back at LHS, the full FOSS curriculum, including all of the teacher manuals and associated equipment, were made available to me.

I learned that the FOSS project had developed a two-box FOSS sampler kit for instructors of elementary science methods courses. Larry and Linda made one available to me upon my arrival at LHS. But my days there were so full that I didn't really get a chance to go through the kit's contents in any systematic way until I returned to my home campus. The kit contains several sample teacher guides from the various grade levels, as well as the equipment to support these lessons.

Although the FOSS program has always been associated with LHS, there is more that happens there—much more! These other LHS diversions were icing on the sabbatical cake. It has a museum exhibit area that features its rich history; it has hands-on displays and indoor and outdoor exhibits; and it has an extensive community outreach program. LHS is also the home of other science curricular development projects, such as Great Explorations in Math and Science (GEMS) and the Science Education for Public Understanding Project (SEPUP). Of course, any stay at LHS needs to involve developing some familiarity with all of these. Even lunchtime can be put to great purpose admiring the spectacular view from LHS's hillside location above Berkeley and San Francisco Bay. The vagaries of the weather add to the daily spice of the visual experience.

Although I am not anxious for the sabbatical to end, I am at the same time excited to use my new materials and experiences to enhance my elementary science methods course when I next teach it. I had a great experience, met many dedicated and talented educators, learned valuable information, developed a deeper appreciation for curricular innovation and refinement, and left with an abundant supply of ideas and materials that will benefit our program for pre-service teachers into the distant future. For science faculty with diverse teaching responsibilities that include an elementary science methods course, I heartily recommend a sabbatical involvement with the FOSS group at LHS. If you make arrangements for a similar experience, remember to bring binoculars to enhance your lunchtime dining pleasure.

You can contact Dr. Joseph J. Gerencher, Jr., at the Department of Physics and Earth Sciences, Moravian College, 1200 Main St., Bethlehem, PA, 18018-6650, 610-861-1440. E-mail: