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JILA enthusiastically supports physics and other CU science education projects that benefit students in local elementary, middle, and high schools as well as here at CU. Four exemplary programs include the Physics Education Technology Project, Physics Education Research at Cu-Boulder, Partnerships for Informal Science Education in the Community, and STEM-Colorado.
For almost a decade, JILA has supported the CU Physics Department in its PhET program. PhET was founded by JILA Fellow Carl Wieman and specializes in the development of fun, interactive and research-based simulations of processes in physics, biology, chemistry, earth science, and math. Different online simulations are geared for students in elementary school through college. The fun, interactive simulations are designed to teach science and math concepts by giving students the opportunity to explore and experiment.The PhET website includes creative lesson plans, homework assignments and questions for teachers — submitted by other teachers. The PhET program offers regular workshops on how best to use the simulations.
JILA actively supports CU's physics education research (PER) group, one of the newest and largest research programs of this kind in the nation. The group was founded by JILA Fellow Carl Wieman, who continues to play a leadership role in developing this important new field of research. PER investigates the use of technology in physics education, the value of concept- and belief-oriented assessments, theories of how students learn physics, and the value of specific educational reforms. The group studies how students learn such topics as quantum mechanics and how their ideas change as they receive formal instruction. It also develops and evaluates interactive web-based computer simulations as part of CU's Physics Education Technology (PhET) project. For example, one JILA science education researcher helped develop a PhET simulation to help students better understand the structure and behavior of atoms.
PER promotes the implementation of research-based teaching practices in CU science classes. Classes emphasize the connection between science concepts and students' real-world experiences. Teachers focus on reasoning and sense-making. They monitor the success of particular classes in positively impacting student attitudes about science via student responses to surveys given at the beginning and end of particular courses.
JILA provided opportunities for university students to teach science activities to K–12 students who are often underrepresented in science. CU graduate and undergraduate students as well as research associates at JILA visit local schools with hands-on science activities. These activities encourage students to explore concepts underlying research at JILA and reinforce the Colorado Content Standards for Science. The topics presented include the characteristics of electric circuits, magnets, and electromagnets, the properties of waves, how light behaves, and Lego™ robotics. All activities emphasize the nature of science exploration. For instance, some students build a pendulum and decide for themselves how to characterize it. Others create cars using robotic legos, then determine a way to measure their speed and acceleration. Students communicate what they learn by making stop-action movies, which are shown during a field trip to JILA at the end of the semester.
PISEC recently designed an innovative "circuits cave" science project, which combines scientific inquiry about electric circuits with imaginary play. The project trained 30 CU physics students to conduct weekly after-school activities at Northridge, Spangler, and Rocky Mountain Elementary Schools, Heritage Middle School, and at Casa de la Esperanza (House of Hope), a residential community in Longmont owned and operated by the Boulder County Housing Authority. During the fall of 2009, 110 students participated in the program, which was designed to encourage young people who are traditionally underrepresented in math and science to explore a career in science.
JILA hosts tours at the end of each semester for students participating in the circuit cave project. As part of a lesson on cold molecules, the students get to eat ice cream made with liquid nitrogen. Afterward, the students view the videos they made during the semester to show what they learned about electric circuits. After another short lesson on laser science and fast-action cameras, they head off to visit a JILA laboratory. In the fall of 2009, students from Northridge, Spangler, and Rocky Mountain Elementary Schools, as well as Casa de la Esperanza spent two hours at JILA learning new science and seeing what goes on in a research lab.
JILA also conducts tours for local K–12 students and college students upon request. The students visit a research lab and interact with the young scientists who work there. They tour the Instrument Shop and meet the skilled machinists involved in designing and constructing customized scientific apparatus. School groups that have toured JILA include the I Have a Dream Foundation summer camp, the honors physics class at Evergreen High School, the physics club of Fort Hays State University, the Colorado and Wyoming Junior Academy of Science, and a fourth grade class from Lafayette Elementary School.
JILA graduate students and research associates have also made science presentations at Boulder Preparatory High School, Boulder High School, Fairview High School, Evergreen High School, Casey Middle School, and Lafayette Elementary School. The institute has also supported an after-school science club at Casey Middle School, physics classes at Boulder Preparatory High School, lessons on electric circuits at Lafayette Elementary School, and a week of science camp for middle school students with the I Have a Dream Foundation.
JILA Fellow Richard McCray invented the Stem–Colorado Learning Assistant model in 2003. He was also the lead investigator on the first two grants (from the Pew Charitable Trust and the National Science Foundation) supporting this effort . His goal and that of the other five faculty who signed on during STEM's early years was to change the way in which large-enrollment science courses were taught. At the same time, these faculty members wanted to recruit and prepare talented science majors for careers in teaching. Additional goals included improving math and science education for all CU undergraduates, engaging the CU faculty both in recruiting and preparing future teachers and in improving the quality of undergraduate education, and transforming the culture in math and science departments to value research-based teaching. McCray led the efforts to develop the Learning Assistant model for nearly five years.
The Learning Assistant model includes weekly meetings between the learning assistants and their faculty instructors to reflect on the course, plan for the following week, and analyze student assessment data. In class, the assistants work with teams of six to 20 students, assessing their progress and asking them thought-provoking questions. The assistants also attend special Mathematics and Science Education seminars where they can reflect on their own teaching and learning.
By the end of its first five years of operation, the program involved 46 faculty members from six departments and had successfully transformed more than 30 undergraduate courses. It recruited and trained more than 200 learning assistants. The program now offers workshops at national conferences on implementing similar programs at other universities.