Non-Profit Organization - Teacher's Corner

Interview with Beth Mowry, Teacher, Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies

What grade level are the students you teach at BCS? And what subject?
I teach all grade levels (9-12), but the Fossil course has 10th and 12th grade students in it. This semester-long course on paleontology is an upper-level Earth Science course specifically designed so my students can complete their PBAT (Performance Based Assessment Task). Our school has a waiver from the state-mandated standardized tests, but students have to complete an advanced research project instead. In science, this means that students conduct their own original experiment. Ours is an urban, high-poverty high school where many students are the first in their families to go to college, let alone consider a career in the sciences.

How long have you been a teacher? What led you to pursue the profession?
I have been a teacher since 2007. Before that, I was a staff member at the Girl Scouts in Pennsylvania. I came to teaching because for as long as I remember, I loved teaching - from when I worked at summer camp during college and then in my role as camp director and program developer with the Girl Scouts. I wanted to make the change into a more formal educational environment because I wanted the opportunity to impact children in a more consistent way.

How long were you on the fellowship at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center? What were some of your most memorable activities?
I was on the fellowship for two weeks. During the first week, I was part of a Teachers' Program developed by the Big Horn Basin Foundation. We took tours of local geological sites, and then we learned about the process of digging for fossils. We also spent time digging in the dinosaur quarries. There were only three teachers enrolled in the course, which meant we had plenty of time to interact with instructors and learn all we could. I learned so much — everything from how to tell bone from rock to how to make molds and casts of specimens. I learned how to excavate bones, how to catalog and record data, how to catalog and store specimens, how to clean the fossils using dental picks and air tools and how to glue broken bones back together.

By the end of the second week, as we were heading out into the field, the coordinator of the teacher program said to me, "Beth, you're in charge." Apparently, I had learned enough and proved myself enough that I could be in charge of the small group of people who were excavating and mapping in bone locations. (By the way, this group included college students who had been working at WDC all summer.)

How long have you been a teacher? What led you to pursue the profession?
I have been a teacher since 2007. Before that, I was a staff member at the Girl Scouts in Pennsylvania. I came to teaching because for as long as I remember, I loved teaching - from when I worked at summer camp during college and then in my role as camp director and program developer with the Girl Scouts. I wanted to make the change into a more formal educational environment because I wanted the opportunity to impact children in a more consistent way.

During the second week, I stayed on at the site to volunteer. During this time, I helped with "Dig for a Day" programs, in which families come to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center and spend a day digging for fossils. I also assisted with a "Kids Dig" program. Finally, I learned more about cleaning and preparing fossils and also learned about collections management, field research and advanced field techniques.

The thing that stands out most for me about my fellowship was how useful I felt while I was there. The WDC operates programs for children and families but has approached them without benefit of working with educators. So when I was there, suggesting simple changes like, "Don't answer questions. Ask the kids questions to help them figure it out," seemed monumental.

What were your expectations about the fellowship experience, for yourself and for your students? How were they met or exceeded?
Coming into my fellowship, I had done small amounts of paleontological study through graduate classes in science education and hoped to share some of this passion for the subject with students. I was looking toward this fellowship to strengthen my own knowledge about paleontology and teaching about dinosaurs in particular. I already had a dinosaur unit in place and wanted to make it more authentic. For myself, I wanted an adventure — an opportunity to be a scientist, working in the field of paleontological research. I hoped to make connections and to deepen my curriculum for my students. I thought that maybe I'd come home with new resources and maybe a fossil to show my students. All of these expectations were met and exceeded!

As I was nearing the end of my fellowship, the manager of the prep lab, a research paleontologist, inquired if I'd like to borrow some dinosaur bones to bring back to my students. I was astounded! My school would be one of only three locations nationwide able to use specimens from the collection of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. Many of the staff members at the WDC offered to be experts, using Skype technology. Staff were figuring out ways to help me bring my students to the Center the following year. I also had money left over, and Fund for Teachers was generous enough to allow me to spend the money on getting the supplies for this totally unexpected project — supplies to set up my own fossil preparation lab in my high school.

When I returned home, I began to think about how to structure my new course, so that my students could do authentic research on the dinosaur bones while at the same time meeting the graduation requirements of the PBAT. I came up with a plan and made sure I talked up the curriculum to seniors and sophomores who may be interested. I was so eager to begin my course that I fit it in, despite having a full teaching schedule during the day. I worked it out so that I taught the course during our Wednesday elective period and after school on Fridays.

I currently have seventeen students in my class. They just finished learning about sedimentary rocks and where these rocks are formed. Tomorrow, they learn how to clean and fix broken bones. Tomorrow, they begin to plan their independent research project. Next week, I give them their own bones to begin researching and preparing for museum display. These bones are 150 million years old!

Though this "Digging for Dinosaurs" course is only a small part of my teaching load, I find that I'm so eager to get to this class Wednesdays and Fridays. I think it's because my kids are actually engaging in authentic work — something that actual scientists do.

This course has reassured me that I have grown beyond my "Girls can't do science" limitation that kept me from pursuing science in college. I am eager to show my students how I am both a teacher and a scientist. The saying, "If you can't do, teach" is definitely not always true. Through my passion for teaching this subject, I am showing my students that they can be scientists, especially the girls who may also be thinking that "Girls can't do science."

Since my fellowship, I was invited to be an instructor in the science education program at Brooklyn College. Last spring, I co-taught a graduate class for teachers on Global Catastrophes. I'm planning to return to Wyoming this summer to continue volunteering at the WDC. The prep lab manager and I intend to co-author a paper for either the Geological Society of America or the National Science Teachers Association about our unique collaboration.

For those of us at Jones Apparel Group who've never taught but support the teaching profession (and fondly recall our own teachers), can you please tell us one or more things about teaching or teachers that you wish more non-teachers could experience or appreciate?
What I think that the general pubic may not understand about teaching is that it's not about the "miraculous way" you "turn around students' lives" with one inspirational speech or moment in class like we often see in the media. It's about teachers having the tenacity and dogged persistence to work really, really hard to try to influence students into making more positive choices for their lives. Good teachers don't only teach subject matter; they try to teach young people how to be good, kind and thoughtful people. And the thing is, unlike in other professions, you may never know if what you did really worked. Most students will forget the content that we have taught them. But the life lessons that teachers impart will resound for them for years to come. How many of us have thanked our own teachers after we have left high school?

Further information: Check out Beth Mowry's "Digging for Dinosaurs" class Web site!