Program pairs local teachers with scientists

Steven Schultz

Three local high school chemistry teachers returned to their classrooms this fall ready to give students a view of their field that goes well beyond the facts in their textbooks.

Under a newly expanded summer research program in the University chemistry department, the teachers worked side-by-side with Princeton scientists, conducting research and helping create the knowledge that may one day become part of a textbook.

"Almost all high school labs are staged -- they are designed to succeed and I know the results they're going to get," said Louis Gatto, a chemistry teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School who worked in the lab of Princeton Chemistry Professor Andrew Bocarsly this summer. "Being here, I am actually seeing science in action."

Gatto joined James Looney of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School and Paul Lucuski of McCorristin Catholic High School as participants in the University's "Partners in Science" program, which helps teachers to escape a reliance on textbook-based teaching by immersing them for two summers in the day-to-day life of leading research labs.

"What we're doing is not so much training teachers in teaching technique as getting them excited about research," said Bocarsly, who co-directs the program. The program also seeks to develop collaborations between the teachers and their university mentors that continue throughout the school year.

Partners in Science is expanding this year with the help of three-year grants of $350,000 from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation and $395,000 from the Lucent Technologies Foundation. The money supports a collaboration between Princeton and five other institutions: Columbia University, New York University, Rutgers University-Camden, Seton Hall University and Stevens Institute of Technology.

Princeton and the other institutions have conducted a similar program for more than 10 years on a considerably smaller scale and with less coordination among the institutions. It was originally funded by Research Corporation, an Arizona-based philanthropic foundation. The new funding gives the program the resources to provide intensive, mentored research opportunities for 36 high school chemistry teachers. It also funds quarterly conferences at which teachers and their mentors from all six institutions will discuss their experiences and share their plans to incorporate their insights into their teaching.

Looney has found his research experience has given him insights in answering students' off-the-cuff questions and in providing career advice. "The process of science is something I try to keep weaving through teaching," he said. "In the midst of giving the information, I am trying to convey how that information was obtained, and tell about related questions that remain unanswered today."

Every year, each institution will select three new teachers in the chemical sciences from high schools within easy driving distance from the campus. For about eight weeks during the summer, faculty members will adopt the teachers as regular members of their laboratories, giving them research assignments alongside graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. They will return the following summer for another eight weeks, as three new teachers join them.

"Independent research is central to science. It is how we make discoveries and advance our understanding of the world around us," said Bocarsly. "Yet most high school teachers of science have prepared for their work in a system that emphasized textbook knowledge almost exclusively and separated teaching science from doing science. Often they have not had the experiences that allow them to convey the process and excitement of discovery to students."

Gatto said the experience completely changed his perception of research. He spent the summer working on improving the chemistry of membranes used in fuel cells, devices that have the potential to replace gasoline power in cars and other applications. He said he was amazed by the dedication it took when he saw people working on projects for months, only to have them fail.

"When I come in every day, we don't know what's going to happen," Gatto said in an interview this summer. He added that the scientists he was assigned to work with made him feel part of this process of discovery, not just an observer. "Andy and his grad students are wonderful," he said. "I know I am taking more from them than I am giving."

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