Campus: CSU Northridge -- December 8, 2005
CSUN Program Paves the Way for 21st Century Scientists
When assistant biology professor Virginia Vandergon began teaching at Cal State
Northridge six years ago, she noticed a kind of unease among many of the aspiring teachers
in her science classes.
"Their attitude about science just wasn't positive. It wasn't negative, either; it was just
that they were a little leery of it," she said.
A geneticist who has taught at the high school and community college levels, Vandergon felt
she had to do something about that. Research has shown that teachers who are insecure about
subject matter impart that insecurity--or negativity--to their young students.
Vandergon said she is worried about the "science literacy" of the nation's schoolchildren.
She cites a recent National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report that placed
California students' average science test scores among the lowest in the nation and tracked
a national decline in scores for high school seniors.
A National Academy of Sciences report reveals that 93 percent of public school students in
grades five through eight learn physical science--often for as little as 16 minutes per
day--from teachers who have no college majors or certification in the subject.
To tackle the problem, Vandergon worked with Maureen Rubin of CSUN's Center for Community
Service-Learning to develop a program called "Tomorrow's Scientists," now in its fifth year.
"My research showed that many elementary schoolteachers teach science when they feel they
know something about science, when they feel comfortable with the topic," Vandergon said.
"I also wanted to dispel the myth that science is boring and can't be any fun."
Teachers need to feel secure in the content of the subject matter, Vandergon said.
"Essentially, that would help us improve their confidence and competence levels."
Joining Vandergon on the project are Rubin, Elementary Education Department chair David
Krestchner, geological sciences professor Gerry Simila, geological sciences assistant
professor Elizabeth Nagy Shadman, biology lecturer Michael Franklin and the staff of CSUN's
Service Learning unit.
Through the years, that team has helped bring to the university as many as 48 San Fernando
Valley middle school students at a time--many from underrepresented groups--twice a week for
two hours of intensive, innovative science education classes during CSUN's fall and spring
sessions. "We've only been rained out once in the five years of the program," Vandergon said.
The sessions are conducted entirely by CSUN teaching credential students--there are 24 in
this year's program--enrolled in Biological Concepts, Vandergon's general biology course
specifically geared to liberal studies students on track to earn their Integrated Teacher
Education Program (ITEP) multi-subject teaching credentials.
"The ITEP students don't merely assist," Vandergon said. "They run the show. They design and
implement science lessons from materials they've gathered at the library or on the Internet,
and they construct their lesson plans in synch with California state science standards."
Vandergon chose to work with middle school students--this year from the Van Nuys, Sutter
and Patrick Henry middle schools--because students who originally had an interest in science
tend to lose that interest in middle school. Many of her middle schoolers benefit from early
exposure to a university campus, she said, and the program gives them an important opportunity
to learn science from young teachers who are well-grounded and enthusiastic. "Many have
parents who can't afford to send them to a science camp," she said.
Funded this year by Learning Centered University grants from the Office of the Provost and
earlier by Eisenhower grants, "Tomorrow's Scientists" has been a greater success than even
Vandergon expected. Preliminary data reveals very good performances by Biology Concepts
students in department-wide assessments.
"Students have indicated they have learned a great deal about how to prepare content-rich
yet fun and engaging pedagogy in science," she said. "Significantly, they say they will
make a concentrated effort to integrate science into their curricula."
Contact: Carmen Ramos Chandler, (818) 677-2130,