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Summer 2003 Vol. 3 No. 2

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Elizabeth Carvellas and students in her molecular biology class at Essex High School in Essex Junction, Vt., photo by Rajan Chawla New Teacher Advisory Council Injects Classroom Realities Into Education Research

When Elizabeth "Betty" Carvellas became president of the National Association of Biology Teachers, she was automatically made a member of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents, an elite group of leaders of scientific organizations. At one of her first council meetings, Carvellas felt intimidated by the achievements of most participants, who included a nuclear physicist and a rocket scientist. She didn't have a doctorate. Only a few other women were there. She figured her expertise in the classroom mattered little. "I just kept my mouth shut," she recalled.

Her outlook soon changed. When reflecting back on the council's science and math education subcommittee, she quipped: "I very quickly realized that they had little knowledge about what was happening in education. ... I also found out that once I spoke up, they really did want to know." Nearly 10 years later, she's still involved with the Washington, D.C.-based council as a steering committee member.

Because Carvellas knows what it feels like to squelch one's own insights and opinions, she's ecstatic about a new National Academies initiative to make K-12 teachers' voices a more influential part of discussions and agenda-setting within the scientific research enterprise -- starting with the Academies. The endeavor, called the Teacher Advisory Council (TAC), has gathered 11 stellar teachers from across the country -- including Carvellas -- to infuse the "wisdom of practice" perspectives of top-notch teachers in the Academies' education-research proposals and current projects, as well as in its many outreach activities that target educators.

The teachers critique ideas, brainstorm, and serve as sounding boards for staff members across the Academies. TAC plans to develop a network of teacher "associates" in each state to help spread useful information about research findings, scientific meetings, and related activities. Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, earmarked about $300,000 from an internal endowment to get TAC off the ground.

"Research is wonderful, but it doesn't always have that 'reality base,''' said Carvellas, now a biology teacher and science department co-chair at Essex High School in Essex Junction, Vt. The advisory group is "empowering," she said, because it assigns critical roles to teachers in a team effort to enrich the full classroom experience.

The classroom, after all, is where teachers must breathe life into research findings. One recent morning, about 20 sophomores buzzed around Carvellas' molecular biology class while working on a lab assignment about sickle cell disease, an inherited blood disorder that often causes red blood cells to look more like crescents than doughnuts. With microscopes, they observed red blood samples and wrote about their findings. They manipulated a piece of steel tubing and red Play-Doh shaped like various blood cells to establish how normal red blood cells flow through the body. Other workstations were designed to help students better understand blood proteins and a laboratory technique called electrophoresis, which was demonstrated with a clear, squishy protein gel that revealed tiny blue "bands" after normal and diseased hemoglobin had been exposed to an electric current.

Elizabeth Carvellas and students in her molecular biology class at Essex High School in Essex Junction, Vt., photo by Rajan Chawla

"It's kind of exciting," said 16-year-old Cliff Kida. "She gives you some projects to make you really think." Carvellas gently coached from the side, asking probing questions and urging students to synthesize findings to see the big picture.

The gap between education research and teachers' everyday classroom experiences is a national problem that can thwart reform measures, Alberts said. The impetus for TAC stemmed from his concerns about some of the Academies' own education studies.

"In my opinion, we have generally failed to get a strong-enough 'teacher's voice' in our education reports, despite putting several outstanding teachers on each relevant committee," he said. On many of the Academies' education committees, K-12 teachers tend to defer to university professors and people with other kinds of expertise. Alberts wants the Academies, education administrators, and law-makers at all levels to place greater value on input from excellent teachers when it comes to everything from crafting school reforms to setting education policies.

Barbara Schulz of Issaquah, Wash., an award-winning science teacher, coordinates TAC's work and oversees the selection process for its membership. The high-profile initiative recognizes teachers as true professionals, taking their insights and concerns seriously, she said.

The effort has real merit, said TAC participant Dayo Akinsheye, a mathematics resource teacher at Seaton Elementary School in Washington, D.C. "Nonpractitioners make most education policy decisions," she pointed out. "Members of TAC are positioned to provide an invaluable link to the real nuts-and-bolts issues that confront educators on a daily basis."   -- Vanee Vines

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Copyright 2003 by the National Academy of Sciences