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Educators use the summer to bolster math and science skills

Some teachers use the summer break to unwind from a busy school year, refine their lesson plans for the fall, or take a short-term second job. Others seek out new knowledge in the subjects they teach.

“If you’re teaching science, you should be learning about science,” said Nate Finney, a Manhattan teacher who is spending the summer working in a physics laboratory.

GothamSchools spoke to a handful of city public school teachers who sought out seminars, workshops, and classes to help them learn more about their fields. Today, we’re looking at teachers who decided they wanted to know more about math and science.

Jose Luis Vilson, I.S. 52, Manhattan

In sunny Orlando, Jose Luis Vilson got the chance to live out a childhood dream of becoming an astronaut.

Vilson arrived at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in mid-July to take part in a weeklong course created and funded by the GE Foundation. The course focused on integrating math and science instruction and anchoring both in new learning standards that call for more critical thinking.

“They’re working with NASA to try to approach and integrate Common Core standards with current pedagogy,” said Vilson, who teaches eighth-grade math in Washington Heights and maintains a popular blog about teaching.

“I think the biggest thing is trying to find a common language in the content between math and science,” said Vilson. Part of the course involved hands-on activities where Vilson and the other participants built cars using K’Nex, a construction toy, to learn about force and motion.

“There’s definitely a lot of places where we, as teachers, can start talking in a more sophisticated language that the kids can recognize in both subjects,” he said.

Nate Finney, Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering, Manhattan

A love for science and teaching brought Nate Finney back into a research laboratory several years after conducting experiments as an undergraduate. This summer, Finney joined an engineering research lab at Columbia University, only a few blocks south of the school where he teaches physics and engineering during the school year.

The research opportunity stems from the partnership between Columbia Secondary School and the Ivy League university.

“To be a working scientist while also teaching high school science is a great opportunity,” said Finney. “Ultimately the goal is to have this manifest in some positive change in the classroom, the fact that’s not clear yet in how it’s going to play out I think that’s going to be in the back of my mind as I play the role of researcher.”

Even though the summer gig wasn’t aimed at helping him develop new lesson plans, Finney said he plans to bring some of the experiments from the lab into his high school science classes. He said he hopes that encouraging the students to put down their textbooks and pick up their lab materials will lead them to become enthusiastic about what they’re studying.

“I do feel like these kinds of opportunities are becoming more available. We should start taking advantage of things like this,” said Finney. “I think this is what a professional should do. If you’re teaching science, you should be learning about science.”

Diana Soehl, Columbia Secondary School

Diana Soehl’s search for professional development summer courses led  the self-professed science geek to land a spot in an oceanography program offered by the American Meteorological Society and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

The high school chemistry teacher was one of 25 educators from across the country to participate in the two-week summer workshop in July, which received government funding and was led by Navy scientists. The teachers heard lectures, saw demonstrations, and accessed the Navy’s equipment to learn about the ocean.

“It ties into the environment and ties into how the ocean works,” said Soehl, who will also be teaching 11th grade Advanced Placement environmental science this year. “You can take these modules and use them in your classrooms but the idea is to provide professional development for teachers in your area.”

That shouldn’t be a problem for Soehl, who has been participating in summer professional development courses since 2004. As a member of the National Science Teachers Association, Soehl already has plans for how to present what she learned in Annapolis.

“Every day is a new idea, and I have a little notebook where I can write my notes on what I can do in the classroom,” said Soehl.