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,

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