CSET preparation coursework in biology: A curricular mitosis

By Morgan Appel, director, Education Department, UC San Diego Extension with Gabriele Wienhausen, associate dean, Division of Biological Sciences, UC San Diego

The vital essence of scientific enquiry involves making sense of a confluence of events as they occur in an ever-changing and fluid environment. We frequently find ourselves in awe of the ways in which nature and mankind adapt to their surroundings and developing a keen understanding of the process inspires a certain degree of cognitive and affective satisfaction. The sciences are inherently challenging and engaging — yet for so many of us, including teachers — they are intimidating and formidable. Much of this phenomenon can be attributed to the ways in which we were exposed to and immersed within the sciences during our tenure in secondary schools. This is to say that rather than tapping into the organically captivating nature of the sciences, they were applied to us in an exacting and punitive manner. It is also no secret that many teachers actively seek out primary/early elementary positions so they are not compelled to teach even the most basic science.

In an environment in which the popular media frequently embraces and disseminates ‘scientific evidence’ related to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, nutrition, among other topics, we find that on the whole, the public writ large are far from critical consumers of these data. The ability to separate science from pseudo-science is at once enlightening and empowering. Even our collective fascination with crime scene analysis and blood spatter patterns has not alleviated our scientific malaise or related funk in the teaching profession.

There is an urgent need to develop a roadmap (or scaffold) for guiding and supporting K-12 teachers to become competent and confident science instructors. With the advent of Common Core standards and their emphasis on metacognition, breadth, depth and multidisciplinary study, we must recharge and refocus. Similarly, the scarcity of assignments in primary grades has even the most resolute science-intimidated practitioners reconsidering their stances on the disciplines. This begs the question: does this particular confluence of events inspire a big bang? Or perhaps even a small bang? Indeed it does, insofar as the University of California, San Diego is concerned. In this case, the mitosis of which we speak is inter-segmental and designed to encourage creative practitioners to find a comfortable home in the Biological Sciences.

As the reader may be aware, the University of California, San Diego is nothing less than a science research powerhouse, even prior to its official founding in 1960. As a public land grant institution committed in part by the Morrill Act to research, teaching and service, one could rightly intuit that UC San Diego would bring its best and brightest to bear on the teaching profession. This epiphany, partially realized through Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and comparable programs designed to support students, has given rise to a collaborative effort between the Division of Biological Sciences and the Education Department at UC San Diego Extension.

In effect, the cooperative partnership takes aim at multiple targets but focuses primarily on preparing practitioners to prove subject-matter competence in the biological sciences by passing the California Subject Examinations for Teachers, more widely known as the CSET. Without question, conventional test preparation is a rather saturated and competitive market, dominated by companies emphasizing testing strategies over content knowledge and concomitant pedagogy. Herein lies the difference between the Bio/Extension partnership and other providers: the University is committed to bring some of the brighter stars in its constellation of Biology faculty to not only help teachers successfully pass examinations — but to also become well steeped in content and pedagogy in Biology. As any student knows, it is one thing to ace the exam — but to put knowledge into practice is another altogether. An ancillary — yet terribly important — benefit comes in the form of receiving academic credit for work in the course. These unit credits allow teachers to move forward on the salary scale as they undertake test preparation courses.

Thus, participating teachers become well steeped in metacognitive conceptual knowledge and process, increasing confidence and facilitating success in practice. As we know from basic neuroscience, the affective effect of success can go quite a long way.

Most importantly, the faculty members engaged in CSET preparation coursework are cognizant of the populations being served. Whilst retaining the rigor one might expect from a University of California course, the involved faculty are able to cognitively and affectively engage novices in the sciences through painstakingly careful differentiation. Indeed, not one’s typical test- prep class — or one’s typical Bio course. Instead, we find a compelling hybrid brought about by careful consideration of and attention to need and to audience. The partnership between Biological Sciences and Extension is also committed to supporting teachers beyond their final course assignment in providing them with additional resources, professional development opportunities and materials designed to more finely hone their skills and ultimately cultivate an ongoing interest in — and love for—the scientific disciplines.

BIOLOGY 30000: Cell Biology and Physiology, the first course in this series will be offered online in October by Dr. Keefe Reuther. 

For more information about BIOLOGY 3000 or the Extension/Biology partnership, please contact Morgan Appel, director of Education at UC San Diego Extension at mappel@ucsd.edu.

Posted: 9/5/2013 12:00:00 AM by UC San Diego Extension: Education | with 0 comments

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