Teachers become students to enhance learning in high school chemistry classrooms
Posted: 08/20/2013
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Marie Smith (BS '89, MS' 97) said she learned something new in every session of a free chemistry workshop conducted Aug. 12 by The University of Texas-Pan American and South Texas College for area high school teachers.

Marie Smith (in white coat), a chemistry teacher at Nikki Rowe High School in McAllen, joined other educators from Valley schools in a daylong Chemistry Workshop this summer presented primarily by UTPA and STC faculty and funded by the THECB to promote P-16 Council initiatives to improve the transition from high school to college coursework for Valley students.

Smith, who teaches chemistry to 10th and 11th grade students at Nikki Rowe High School in McAllen, said the workshop not only gave her an opportunity to gain new skills and knowledge to better help her students understand chemistry at a higher level, but also the chance to interact with other area chemistry educators to share ideas on how to enhance their teaching and students' learning of the subject.

"To a degree it affirmed what I am already doing in the classroom and encouraged me to continue and or improve some practices in my teaching. In other areas, it helped me realize I should make it more rigorous," she said. "Of course, it is always fun and beneficial to participate in labs, which we as teachers can bring to the classroom."

Smith was among nearly 50 teachers who participated in the workshop funded by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to promote P-16 initiatives designed to improve academic vertical alignment (VA), which is the process of creating a seamless flow of instruction from one grade level to the next. A science-focused VA team comprising educators from the PSJA, Sharyland, Weslaco and McAllen school districts proposed the chemistry workshop with the intent of helping both teachers well-schooled in chemistry but wanting help in effective teaching practices and those who teach chemistry but did not have substantial coursework in the subject.

In the daylong workshop, the teachers participated in six different hands-on experiments and activities employing the latest in technology, such as forensics testing equipment and chemistry graphing calculators, and techniques like guided inquiry to enhance learning. The classes were led by UTPA and STC faculty members as well as two representatives of the Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group, which offers the Living by Chemistry curriculum for first year chemistry students.

Dr. Laura Saenz, associate vice provost for Curriculum, Teaching and Assessment in UTPA's Office of Undergraduate Studies, who coordinated the workshop, said the focus on chemistry is important given the challenges the subject presents to entering students at both UTPA and STC and because it is an identified gatekeeper course -- a course defined as having high enrollment and a low student success rate.

"By attending the camp, teachers benefitted by building their background knowledge and by interacting with higher education faculty who can explain what is expected for success at the community college or university," Saenz said. "I believe that there is also a benefit to higher education as well. Through any interaction with ISD teachers, our faculty can gain an understanding of the challenges faced by public schools. Working together and building partnerships with school districts, we are more likely to close the secondary to post-secondary gap."

Texas P-16 Regional Councils advance efforts to target, design and implement systemic actions to establish college-going habits and traditions in middle and high school, particularly to increase Hispanic college participation and completion rates. For more information on P-16 outreach efforts, contact Saenz at