November 10, 2010 | Karen Barbier
Becoming a better science teacher helped Clear Creek Independent School District's Hyde Elementary teacher Audrey Soto's class become better science students. The 16-year teacher saw her school's science scores soar from acceptable to exemplary after she began attending workshops offered through the University of Houston-Clear Lake School of Education together with the Environmental Institute of Houston in collaboration with the Texas Regional Collaboratives, a statewide network of partnerships between institutions of higher education, school districts, business partners and the Texas Education Agency.
"We weren't teaching things in the right way," Soto explains. "We weren't utilizing our science lab the way we should have been."
The UH-Clear Lake/Environmental Institute of Houston Science Collaborative proved a life saver for Soto, who admits she did not have as strong a science background as she would have liked but volunteered to teach the subject when no one else at the school stepped up.
Texas Regional Collaboratives was first formed in the 1990s when concern that U.S. students were falling behind other countries in science and mathematics first surfaced. Studies show that teacher quality determines student success, and the goal of Texas Regional Collaboratives is to provide sustained and high intensity professional development to P-12 teachers of science and mathematics to help make them better teachers.
"What makes me successful as a science teacher is what I've learned at UHCL," says Soto.
One example of the type of workshop Soto finds valuable is the Earth Science and Energy Education workshop. Employees of energy companies come in and explain what happens in each phase of oil production from determining where to look for it underground, to deciding whether to drill a well, getting it out of the ground and processing it once above ground.
"For a person who just puts gasoline in her car, it broadened my knowledge – those are the kinds of things I'm able to take back and share with the kids."
UH-Clear Lake's School of Education began its partnership with Texas Regional Collaboratives six years ago. Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction (Science Education) Brenda Weiser served as the Environmental Institute of Houston director of environmental education, as well as on the School of Education faculty at the time. She was instrumental in writing the grant that initiated the partnership. Today, the Texas Regional Collaboratives program at UH-Clear Lake/Environmental Institute of Houston has reached more than 1,500 teachers, 25 school districts representing 120 public schools, and six private schools.
Eighth-grade Queens Intermediate (Pasadena ISD) teacher Delphinia "Dee" Denny learned of the Texas Regional Collaboratives program and quickly recognized its value for her school and its students. She completed the first workshop and left with a Light and Optic kit to take back to her classroom.
"I was hooked," says Denny. The self-admitted "workshop junkie" completed more than 225 hours of training in a single year.
Denny explains that what makes the Collaborative workshops so valuable is that the teachers are also given the training materials.
"If the school can't afford to purchase the materials then a workshop is almost worthless," she explains. "With the Collaborative you see what teaching can be, then you can go do it in your classroom."
Soto is also appreciative of the training and materials, noting that it did not cost her anything.
"That's huge for a teacher," Soto says.
Texas Regional Collaboratives funding comes via the Texas Education Agency and the University of Texas Science and Mathematics Center from the U.S. Department of Education. Funds from other partners such as the El Paso Corporation, the Society of Petroleum Engineers – Gulf Coast Section and others allow the UH-Clear Lake/Environmental Institute of Houston collaborative to purchase additional teaching materials for workshop attendees.
Teachers who complete 105 hours of training become Science Teacher Mentors. The mentors then take the content knowledge and skills back to their respective campuses, districts or regions, providing mentoring, technical assistance, peer coaching and leadership to additional teachers of science and mathematics. While only 105 hours of training are required to become a mentor, Weiser reports the UH-Clear Lake Science Teacher Mentors averaged 136 hours last year.
"These teachers are excited by the Texas Regional Collaboratives program and they are dedicated to ensuring their students get excited, too," Weiser adds.
Denny is quick to share both knowledge and materials with the other teachers at Queens Intermediate. It makes sense to her that the better students the sixth- and seventh-grade kids are, the better they will arrive at her classroom in eighth grade.
"The more I help them, the more it helps me," she explains.
The Texas Regional Collaboratives professional development programs are also available to School of Education's preservice candidates, giving teachers-in-training an opportunity to attend, as well.
"Our preservice candidates use their new knowledge and materials as they develop lesson plans during their Internship, and many of them continue to attend our workshops once they are in the classroom," says Weiser.
As schools and districts across the area watch their TAKS scores climb through teacher participation in the Texas Regional Collaboratives program, UH-Clear Lake will continue to expand its program offerings as more seek to join the partnership.