SciTrek Interview with Dr. Norbert Reich

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SciTrek in Santa Barbara, California provides a comprehensive inquiry-based, hands-on science experience for local 2nd through 8th grade classrooms that addresses Next Generation Science Standards. Modules with topics ranging from soil water retention to motion are carefully crafted to teach facts while allowing for experimental questions to have more than one answer. This unique, open approach demonstrates to students that science research is not based on “plug and chug” protocols, but instead asks testable questions in order to explore the natural world. Undergraduate and graduate students from the University of California at Santa Barbara are trained to lead modules in the classroom, with the goal that the classroom teacher learn and lead the module the next time.

Based on the premise that the scientific method and hands-on activities are not mutually exclusive from other aspects of learning, SciTrek participation also benefits reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. ASBMB contacted HOPES recipient and founder of SciTrek, Dr. Norbert Reich, to learn more about this program.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How did SciTrek get started?

The idea for SciTrek started about 10 years ago. I wanted to improve my university students’ understanding of science, but soon realized it was naïve to think I could have a significant impact within one or two courses after they had 15 years of traditional science education. My university students’ K-12 science education often provided them with a shallow understanding of science that was difficult to build upon. To address this issue, I pursued and obtained a faculty outreach grant from the University of California Santa Barbara. I started a program that brought university students into local K-12 classrooms to help teachers convey the practices of science through hands-on experience. 

Why is your approach unique? What do the teachers you work with find most useful about your program?

Although there are many great programs out there, when I visit classrooms, few are being used. These classrooms traditionally have little to no science education (K-6) or if they do (7-12), it lacks many opportunities for the students to design their own experiment, fail, argue about their interpretation of data, etc. We are distinctive because our system is adapted for the realities of the 2nd-8th grade classroom. We make the program possible by bringing in the university students and resources necessary to help teachers.  Teachers benefit from involvement of a SciTrek team of 3-6 university students in each class to make the small group format possible (student groups are typically 2-5 students). Teachers also appreciate that we bring all materials necessary for the modules into the classrooms.

How can ASBMB members get involved?

We accept any volunteer who is interested and is willing to go through the training needed in order to make the module successful. 

Describe writing a module. How do you decide what topics to base your modules around?

Dr. Darby Feldwinn, a SciTrek Faculty member and lecturer at UCSB, and her team write most of the modules, although I have done some. It’s an iterative process, but when we are writing modules it takes close to a couple of months to start and never really stops. We are continually taking in comments from teachers and volunteers as well as evaluating how successful each day of the module is and then rewriting the modules as needed so they can run as smoothly as possible.  Deciding which topic to base a module around is blend of making the teachers happy (common core, testing topics, etc.), and finding very simple demonstrations that are amenable to manipulation by the students, and low cost. Our approach is in no way limited to subject material.

Approximately how many students benefit from SciTrek yearly?

We reached over 1300 2nd-8th grade students in 46 classrooms and 15 schools, and we are growing. The SciTrek program expanded recently to include 7th graders and we have just initiated an 8th grade program in 2015. The benefits are measureable. For example, students who participated in SciTrek programs experienced a 30% increase in critical thinking performance compared to students who did not participate in the program. 

What have been your biggest challenges? In particular, are there challenges that are unique to each age group?

Besides funding and scheduling issues, our biggest challenge is finding and training university students to both have knowledge about how science works as well as classroom management skills to run the modules. The leads that come from UCSB sometimes have trouble with classroom management as these modules require free thinking from the students, which sometimes results in students getting off track.  Some of the UCSB leads have trouble redirecting students before they become unproductive. 

The challenges we see unique to different age groups are typically seen as we work with teachers to take over the lead role. We generally don’t start the teachers off as leads. We allow them to learn the modules by running a small group so they are able to see what happens in a small group and work their way towards leading the full class. In addition, the first time that a teacher leads, they will have a UCSB lead or SciTrek staff there to assist them. This way, although they may be uncomfortable with experiments they may have never seen before (which SciTrek staff experiences as well), they will have had some experience with the module and its format to aid them in their ability to guide students with this new material. Elementary school teachers, who typically have no science background, initially struggle with the openness of the modules. This means that they will not know the answer to every experiment that their students are exploring, which sometimes makes them uncomfortable. In contrast, the challenge at the junior high school level is different. These teachers do have science degrees; unfortunately, the majority obtained a science education that had very little exposure to the practices of science, and thus they don’t focus on that in their classroom (they too feel uncomfortable, but less so than the elementary teachers). Another problem for JHS/HS teachers is that their students (and thus they themselves) are tested more, and more specifically on science content/practices, so they feel pressured in covering as much as possible. Fitting in an open ended inquiry program, no matter how content focused, pre-designed, etc., still takes time away from what they think they need to focus on for their tests, etc.

How many schools would you like to work with? What is your long term vision for SciTrek?

One goal is to have a complete K-12 program. One of the problems we will have to address in the future is how to gain access into high schools. Most high school teachers want us to come in after school, or simply don’t have time given the focus on testing.

The long term vision is harder to define. This program currently only requires a group of college science students, our materials, and interested teachers. Local schools will allow us to grow quite a bit; beyond that, I'd think the program will need to focus on summer programs for teachers and faculty outside our local area interested in participating in SciTrek, and expanding our online materials (which we make available). 

How many scientists (graduate students or higher) currently work with SciTrek? What do they do?

We actively recruit across UCSB in all disciplines. Currently, we have 213 university students, including 30 PhD students working with SciTrek. They pretty much run the module within the class, in most cases following the lead of a SciTrek staff person.

What is the best feedback you have received about your program from teachers, students, and/or volunteers?

From Megan Cotich, 7th grade science teacher, La Colina JHS

“The greatest joy of the program is watching my at-level students use their creativity and energy to overcome what they may lack in content knowledge. In the end, this group of at-level students overcame their own feelings of inferiority and tied with another class to be named winners! 

I feel that all students, the gifted students included, came away learning something about the scientific process that they hadn’t experienced before: failure. That feeling of success is something that they will have with them forever, and for that I am grateful for SciTrek.”

From 7th grade students who participated in SciTrek, Fall 2014

“Scitrek helped me think differently about problems” Will Mundell

“Almost everything I learned about doing science was new to me” Alivia Munles

“I learned that if you fail it doesn’t matter because others can learn from that” El Simon