Hands-on science turns on students

Hands-on science turns on students

On her first trip to Israel, Ridgewood resident Michelle Kortenaar learned how to turn a human ear into a radio speaker. And when she returned to New Jersey, she brought that skill, and many other novel science teaching strategies, back to her physics and biology classes at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in West Orange. She learned the unique approaches to hands-on science teaching at a summer institute for teachers sponsored by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

The Koffler Accelerator of the Canada Centre of Nuclear Physics; this building serves as a symbol of the Weizmann Institute of Science. Photo by Miryam Wahrman

"Every single day I came back to my room having changed my way of thinking about teaching," said Kortenaar, recalling her experiences during the 10-day Schwartz International Leading Science Teachers’ Seminar. She attended the seminar together with 10 other North American teachers and nine Israeli high school teachers. "The sessions were extremely practical. I’ve come back with many things that I’ve been able to implement in my class this year."

The teachers were exposed to a diverse program that included hands-on exercises in biology, physics, and chemistry. They learned about IST, the Investigation into Science & Technology Program, which brings students into labs to gain hands-on experience working on research projects. To experience IST, some seminar participants conducted lab experiments on bioengineering; others learned about the physics of music. Kortenaar’s school is now working on arranging for its own high school seniors, some of whom spend up to four months of their senior year in Israel, to participate in the IST program during spring ‘007.

Michelle Kortenaar presents a poster of a research project to other seminar participants. Photo courtesy of Weizmann Institute of Science.

Kortenaar described how the group learned approaches to outdoor learning and teaching by participating in a field trip to Nizzanim Sand Dunes Nature Reserve, "a very isolated place just north of the Gaza Strip." Kortenaar explained how they "swept the sand smooth, then came back a few hours later to observe the tracks of all the animals." In the process, they learned about the diversity of life in the desert, and most important, said Kortenaar, "we came back with ideas of how to do field work with our students. We’re working on some new ideas for our biology courses."

"My objectives were two-fold," said Kortenaar. "First: to bring back things I could use in my classroom, practical things that I can do with confidence in the classroom." She explained how they built microphones out of tin cans, magnets, and wires, and recorded through them onto computers. "Science experiments seem like magic because the parts are hidden from you. But this is so accessible…. It sounded like Thomas Edison’s recording devices. And it teaches the principles of physics of sound recording."

Her second objective was to make connections with other science teachers in North America and Israel. "We had an equal number of Israeli science teachers with us on the program. It was a really interesting opportunity to talk to Israeli science teachers and find out what they’re doing in Israeli schools."

Through her connections she’s already learned about other science education programs that she and her colleagues can participate in. "I also know more about what the Weizmann [Institute] does, and I can tell students about research going on in Israel."

"The Davidson Institute does graduate work in science education, but also teaches teachers how to do science well in high school, so they will have a pool of students who want to go on in science," said Kortenaar, "Even if they don’t go on to science, they will be educated voters and citizens."

The Weizmann Institute prides itself on providing an interdisciplinary environment where scientists from many different fields work together to study basic questions in science. There are about 850 doctorate-holding scientists, engineers, and technicians working on the campus in Rehovot, Israel. Graduate education is a major focus, and all of its masters and doctoral students are fully supported by fellowships. According to Prof. Daniel Zajfman, who recently took the reins as the new president of the institute, major research initiatives include the brain and bionics; nanotechnology and biotechnology; astrophysics; biomathematics; lasers, optics, and quantum technology; alternative energy; water and climate; biomedical research; and molecular fossils.

Zajfman reported that science education, through the Davidson Institute, is also a major emphasis at Weizmann. "The general public must be educated in science. To have people who are scientifically literate is very important," said Zajfman.

And how do you transform a human ear into a radio speaker? Kortenaar explained that you first wind a wire around a pencil, and position a magnet on top of that wire. Next, attach one end of the wire to a jack and plug it into the audio output of a radio. If you then clench that pencil in your teeth, you will "hear" the radio broadcast through your jaw. And if someone listens near your ear, that person can also hear the broadcast.

According to Dr. Zahava Scherz, director for science and education communication of the Davidson Institute, the second Schwartz Seminar is scheduled for July; application materials and forms for teachers will be available on the Website sometime in January. For more information about the ‘006 seminar, go to www.weizmann.ac.il/davidson/eng/index.php. Click on Projects, then click on International Projects.

Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman is professor of biology and director of general education at William Paterson University of New Jersey in Wayne. A Teaneck resident, she visited the Weizmann Institute of Science in September.

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