By Gemma Mora-Azuar
I am a member of the TIES Teacher Corps, a growing group of teachers, college professors and scientists who present workshops for the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES), a project of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. TIES workshops are designed for middle school science teachers. In addition to presenting the teachers with the content knowledge they will need to meet state evolution and natural selection standards with their students, we provide our workshop participants with many different hands-on and online activities to enhance their lessons. All of our resources can be found at www.richarddawkins.net/ties.
As a high school biology teacher, presenting these workshops gives me the satisfying feeling that my work is helpful to other educators. I have given two TIES presentations, one last October at the Rio Grande Valley Science Teachers Annual Conference and another one on January 4. Twenty middle school science teachers from the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district in southern Texas attended my January presentation. These teachers must prepare their students to pass the state’s science content exam. One of the main areas of these exams — and usually one of the areas where teachers need the most support — is the unit on evolutionary science.
As a TIES Teacher Corps presenter, you always wonder if your presentation will be welcomed, if the teachers will be truly interested in it, and whether or not there will be discomfort in the room created as a result of your participants’ religious or personal beliefs.
My doubts began to disappear almost immediately at the Texas session when a middle-aged teacher approached me minutes before my presentation. He introduced himself and asked me what the workshop was about. This teacher told me that evolutionary science was an area where the gaps in his knowledge concerned him. He was excited and relieved that help in the form of a slide presentation and student activities would be offered during the workshop with even more resources readily available for him on the TIES website.
I perceived this same enthusiasm and interest from the other teachers during the presentation. While I was explaining the various lines of evidence that proves that evolution is a proven scientific theory, I observed the teachers’ heads nodding with understanding. Teachers participated quite actively, with a friendly willingness to interact and share their doubts. The best part of the workshop was the hands-on activities, the moment that I shared with them the activities and online resources that could help them in their classrooms.
With just an hour and a half for our workshop, we did not have too much time to dwell on the hands-on activities. Our daylong TIES workshops cover a much greater amount of material and often include presentations from local scientists doing research in evolutionary science.
We did have time to develop three activities. The first one was related to fossils and the Strata Superposition Principle. The teachers enjoyed it quite a bit. I definitely perceived gaps in their knowledge but the teachers were delighted that someone could help them address their lack of understanding. The fossil activity was followed by an activity on the various lines of evidence for evolution. We ended with the teachers’ favorite activity, titled This Lab is For The Birds. In this lab, variations in beaks within a bird species are simulated with different tools. Each teacher has a different “beak” and must obtain a variety of food items: of different sizes, consistencies and textures, depending on changes in the environment. (For those experienced educators reading this, TIES has modified the classic Peter and Rosemary Grant Galapagos Finch Lab for the middle school classroom). I could see the teachers interacting in groups, laughing, and having a good time — evidence that their students will also have a good time when they complete the activity. The lab includes data collection and analysis, key features in the new science standards found throughout the country.
The best part of the day came at the end of the session, with everyone participating in the final discussion. Teachers discussed how they had developed similar activities previously; they shared their own experiences; and gave their peers ideas on improving the activities. The TIES materials found on the website are all easily modified to meet the needs of individual teachers and their students.
The environment during my presentation was friendly and funny. Teacher appreciation was evident both during our discussion and in the comments written on the workshop evaluation sheets. “We need more professional development like this one!” seemed to be the recurring theme. The teachers’ most common request: the desire to participate in another, longer TIES presentation in the future so there could be more time to cover additional content and activities. TIES workshops are proof that teachers welcome professional development opportunities that focus on content, instead of data analysis and assessment. I certainly look forward to helping other colleagues in the future.
Gemma Mora-Azuar is a high school science teacher in Texas who was named an ExxonMobil Science Teacher of the Year in 2014 by the University of Texas Pan-American. Originally from Spain, she received a BS in biology and a masters degree in environmental biology from the University of Alicante. She is a member of TIES Teacher Corps.