Teacher connects students to modern science
Can you name a modern-day living scientist and his or her contribution to science? If not, you are not alone.
When many people read newspaper articles or listen to discussions regarding scientific topics, they simply tune out, unable to understand what is being discussed. This leaves much of the population scientifically illiterate when it comes to some the world’s most important topics. One south Florida high school teacher is trying to change that.
Lorna O’Connor teaches biology at Island Coast High School in Cape Coral, Fla., and her participation in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Academies Creating Teacher Scientists (ACTS) program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has strongly affected how she teaches. ACTS, a program administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), is a three-year program that provides research opportunities for teachers and helps them take these experiences back to the classroom, exposing students to state-of-the-art research.
The collaboration with other teachers and scientists through the ACTS program has not only been fulfilling for O’Connor, but it also allowed her to work alongside and learn from mentor Lee Gunter at ORNL, as well as ORISE Project Manager Arthur Stewart.
“They both gave me the confidence to tackle my own research,” O’Connor said. With that confidence, she is implementing her own educational research endeavors involving new teaching strategies for improving science literacy.
During her first summer participating in ACTS, she learned about a website called eurekalert.org, which publishes articles about current scientific research and its relevancy. She began sharing the information and statistics with students, including one study that found only 15 percent of the U.S. population follows scientific news closely.
But O’Connor’s students are beginning to see things differently thanks to their interest in her hands-on summer experience. O’Connor has also implemented several classroom projects relating to modern science, as opposed to only studying scientific theories and concepts.
Being able to relate to science through their teacher’s research and easy-to-use Web sites has led to a “big boost” in motivation, O’Connor said. “It has created a high-interest environment because they see science as relating to them.”
In the classroom, O’Connor shares her summer experiences studying the genetic make-up of hybrid poplar trees in ORNL’s Biological and Environmental Sciences Division. The division is investigating how these fast-growing, woody plants could be used to produce efficient and cost-effective biofuel. This has real-world application about which the students can get excited; and they are learning the science behind the process, perhaps without even realizing it.
As a self-proclaimed life-long learner, O’Connor applied to the ACTS program because of its research opportunities, as well as the possibilities for improving her teaching strategy. She said, “I feel that I am contributing to a cause that will make the world a cleaner and more educated place.”