At some of Delaware's high schools, math
and science teachers from different disciplines don't know each other,
even when they share the same hallways.
At Newark High School, that's in part because one teacher is new this
year. At Mount Pleasant, one science teacher's classroom is in the
basement. At other schools, time and resources are limited; biology
teachers stick with biology teachers and chemistry teachers stick with
But on a recent February day, many of these teachers came together as
teams at the University of Delaware’s Interdisciplinary Science and
Engineering Laboratory (ISE Lab) to take part in the two-day Practicing
the STEM Practices Winter Institute. One of the goals was to help break
down the walls between their fields.
“Biology, chemistry, physics and math are interdisciplinary, but in
our schools they tend to stay in silos,” said John Jungck, UD professor
and director of the DuPont Science Learning Laboratories, the
instructional wing of ISE Lab. Jungck also is the co-leader of the
two-year Delaware Department of Education Mathematics and Science
Partnership (MSP) grant that made the institute possible.
Over the course of two days, teams from 12 Delaware public and
private high schools took part in activities, both in and out of
laboratories, meant to bridge their fields.
“We are all scattered around the building, and this is the first time
we get to sit together as a team,” Les McLean, a physics teacher at
Concord High School, said of his fellow Concord teammates.
Preceptors at ISE Lab in biology, chemistry and physics worked hard to develop the activities in which the teachers took part.
In one, teams explored microbial fuel cells, combining biology,
chemistry and physics. By the end, teachers were talking about how the
technology could provide electric power off the grid, showing how
another STEM field, engineering, was also relevant to the lesson.
On day two, teams of teachers from different schools scattered white
and black beans onto a square resembling a checkerboard. The beans
represented rabbits and foxes, and the teams were modeling the
population dynamics of the two species, whether each species lived or
died in the presence of the other.
“It’s a way of understanding a complex situation and breaking it
apart,” said Ursuline Academy chemistry teacher Kate McEvoy, while Chuck
Halfen, a science specialist at Newark High, showed off the population
graphs the team had made.
For Mary O'Connell, a math teacher at Tatnall Upper School, the
activity was something she thought could be easily incorporated into
classrooms, despite the short window of time many teachers have to work
“In little things like this there is so much meat,” O'Connell said.
“That’s what’s great about being here. We’re picking up a lot of these
little things we can use.”
When all 60 teachers came together to share their results monitoring
the numbers of foxes and rabbits in relation to one another, the concept
of coupled oscillations became clear. The numbers of each animal
fluctuated in relation to one another in the ecological model.
Later, each discipline split up. In the biology lab, teachers studied
the population dynamics between paramecium and didinium under a
microscope. The chemistry teachers solved the chemical reaction that
caused reversible color changes in a solution. The physics teachers used
a Wilberforce pendulum to examine the dynamics between vertical motion
and horizontal rotation.
All were examples of coupled oscillations; the same mathematical principle was common to all three fields.
Chris Wellborn, a physics teacher at William Penn High School,
remained a bit skeptical about how the strategies could be helpful to
him and his colleagues.
“The challenges are finding common students and making it meaningful,” said Wellborn.
The William Penn team was enthusiastic about the concepts it was
learning at UD, but said school administrators would need to be
understanding of a comprehensive STEM approach and the effect wouldn't
be as strong if students weren't shared between them.
“I would love my classroom to be a lab for academics,” said Joe
English, technology education teacher at William Penn. “If we can work
as a group and be supported, I think we can knock this out of the park.”
Helping the teams do so is the goal of the MSP grant. This summer,
teachers and students from their schools will return to UD to reinforce
and enhance the concepts learned in the winter.
“Summer is when the magic happens,” said Jon Manon, director of the
UD Mathematics and Science Education Resource Center and co-director on
the MSP grant. Manon and Jungck want teachers to see the University as a
The ability to engage in interdisciplinary problem-based learning, to
ask questions and find solutions through inquisitive study and
experimentation are the foundations of both national Next Generation
Science Standards and Common Core State Standards.
William Penn teachers already know these ideas work. When students in
Armando Caro's mathematics class struggled to understand a curve known
as a cycloid, he and English teamed up to build an actual model.
Suddenly, the students had lots of questions.
“It generated math questions, physics questions, engineering
questions from the students,” said Caro. “A lot of the students found
the history fascinating.”
And that's exactly what students need to excel in STEM.
“That’s what learning is: Answer your own questions,” said English.