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From Lab to Classroom

06 January 2013 Written by  Alex Porpora

“Would you like to see the brain?” Renee Bend asks as she walks briskly down the hall to her lab. Bend has a Ph.D. in neuroscience but her lab isn’t at a university or hospital, it’s at the Waterford School in Sandy, Utah. In her first year as a science teacher, she has a full schedule teaching physical science, biology, genetics, and neurosciences to 7th to 12th graders.

Showing human brains to tentative middle and high school students wasn’t what Bend envisioned herself doing six years ago. But while researching eyes in tropical fish for her thesis, it became evident that working in a lab wasn’t the right fit for her. “I’d become disenchanted with the idea of research,” says Bend. “I felt it was very slow paced and it didn’t feel important enough to me any more.”

Bend taught undergraduates while working on her degree, and enjoyed it enough to pursue teaching as a career. She found her current position after an advisor suggested she investigate jobs at local high schools. Despite having no experience teaching the age group, it wasn’t as scary as she expected it to be. “It felt pretty natural to be there, and it was where I wanted to be,” she says.

The Utah State Office of Education understands the value of having professionals in the classroom. The Utah Core Standards for science place an emphasis on understanding the scientific process. “[Learning the scientific process] is vital to preparing students to be college and career ready for STEM [Science Technology Engineering and Math] fields,” says Sarah Young, Science Specialist at the Utah State Office of Education. As practitioners of the scientific process, professionals are uniquely suited to bring this valuable skill to students.

To encourage professionals to become teachers, USOE created the Alternative Route to Licensure program (ARL), passed by the Utah Legislature in 2002. In contrast to traditional teaching preparation programs, ARL allows participants to earn their Utah license while being employed in their first teaching job. According to a 2010 report by the National Center for Education Information, the number of teachers across the country certified by such routes has doubled since 2002, reaching 60,000 in 2009. Still, the proportion of teachers who obtain their license through alternative programs is relatively small, estimated at 16 percent in 2009.

Though an increasingly popular choice, taking the fast track to teaching has its disadvantages. “I don’t have the class management strategies that a person that went through the traditional teaching route probably would have,” says Bend who is enrolled in the ARL program. “I would certainly do a lot of things differently from the beginning next year.” For this very reason, the National Education Association issued a statement in 2009 warning that many alternative route programs fail to prepare candidates to be successful educators.

Like a true scientist, Bend addresses the issue by taking note of what works in the classroom as she goes along. Having spent a large amount of time as a student herself, she is acutely aware of the boredom that can set in from being taught by an uninspired teacher. “[I want to] figure out what I can do that would cause someone in my class to think, ‘Wow! I just learned something, that was really interesting’. I think that’s really difficult to do.”

This day, it looks as if she might achieve her goal. As neuroscience students enter the lab, there is anticipation in the air. One young woman exclaims, “I’m so excited, it’s unreal!” Sitting on a benchtop was the preserved human brain. While some students squirm in their seats and try to keep a safe distance between themselves and the moderately smelly pink specimen, others explore it as much as they can, both visually and tactically. “I think you learn more from an hour in the lab than from an hour in the classroom,” remarks Bend.

While not every student will walk away from the neuroscience lab wanting to be a scientist, Bend hopes they will at least gain a new appreciation for science. Ideally, that is what professionals bring to the classroom: an expertise and passion for the subject that will inspire a new generation.

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