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When Renee Catalano started teaching elementary school 14 years ago, she had a chalkboard in her classroom, but no textbooks. If she wanted to incorporate technology into her lessons, she had to bring it in herself.
Now the science and math achievement adviser uses an interactive whiteboard and computer-based curriculum. But she wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of these tools if she hadn’t sought out training on how to use them.
Studies show that teachers who spend 30 to 100 hours over six to 12 months in professional development programs help students improve by about 21 percentile points. Science teachers who stay up to date on the latest techniques and technology will engage their students, educators say, which ultimately helps them perform better.
Professional development is important because teachers need to keep up with new ideas and concepts, as well as maintain their certification, said Roberta Martinson, a science teacher at Central City High School in Iowa. She’s taking a three-year earth science program and plans to start a physics program this summer through the University of Northern Iowa.
In the earth science course, her class studied rock formations along the banks of the Mississippi River and tested the water in West Okoboji Lake. She also learned to emphasize how the planet’s different spheres –– the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere –– affect each other.
“You need to keep telling them that these different areas are interrelated,” Martinson said. “You don’t just study a volcano and what it did.”
She took that knowledge back to her science class and had her students make a world map. They marked volcanoes and earthquakes on it with dots and studied why volcanoes exist.
In Arizona, Catalano went through a summer science conference program that showed her how to use an interactive whiteboard, and when she finished the training, she earned one for her classroom at Melvin E. Sine Elementary School.
“It’s like PowerPoint on steroids because you can make PowerPoint slides,” Catalano said, “but instead of just being static, you can actually link to things, you can manipulate objects on there.”
One day, she gave the kids coordinates for the location of a bomb, and they had to send a torpedo to destroy it. If they graphed the coordinates correctly on the interactive whiteboard, the bomb exploded.
“Trust me,” Catalano said, “they loved going up there, putting in their coordinates and blowing things up."
In addition to technology training, Catalano has taken online classes in order to strengthen her weak areas and expand her knowledge outside her subject area. Because she’s taken both math and science, she can show students how the subjects relate.
Online classes also allow Superintendent Diane Bemis of Littleton Public Schools in Massachusetts to do her homework whenever she finds time, whether it’s 11 p.m. or 3 a.m. She said the virtual conversations with her classmates are as good as, if not better than, face-to-face interactions.
She recently took an online science course through PBS TeacherLine, which offers more than 130 professional development classes. She received college credit for the class at Merrimack Education Center and will teach the course to elementary school teachers in July.
“The better prepared our teachers are,” Bemis said, “the better our students achieve and perform.”
The teachers become more excited about their work when they take classes and use technology, Bemis said. If someone gives teachers tools to teach with, they will embrace them and use them to improve their skills, which ultimately benefits the students.
“We need to spend our dollars wisely,” Bemis said, “and one of the wisest ways that we can spend our limited funds is in providing solid, up-to-date professional development for teachers.”
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