When biology teacher Jessica L. McSwain guided students through a recent lab activity on genetic transformation, a colleague worked alongside her who understood exactly what she hoped to accomplish.I have to say that I like this idea. I can think of any number of students I've had over the years that might not have been the superstars of the class, but whose passion for science was sorely underused by both their peers and me. I am opposed to using kids as teaching tools; however, in this case, students are not being used to remediate other students or to forego extensions of their own learning. Instead, these peers act as instructional coaches alongside the teacher and are allowed to participate in additional opportunities. What a concept.
Not a fellow teacher, or even a teacher-in-training. A 17-year-old student.
The educator from Hilltop High School, outside San Diego, is one of about 200 teachers who have taken part in an unusual professional-development effort, which trains teachers and students together and has them work side by side in the classroom on science labs. Students in the program, called BioBridge, are expected to serve as leaders after they complete the training and return to class, helping their classmates make sense of the lab activity.
Schools often use students as "peer tutors" in science and other classes. But a number of observers say it is far less common for a professional-development program to have educators work so closely with their young charges in the hope of bringing about classroom improvement.
Yet that cooperation occurs regularly at Hilltop High, where last week Ms. McSwain was assisted in labs in four separate biology classes by Katie Talmadge, a junior with a keen interest in science.
The day before those labs, Ms. Talmadge, the 17-year-old, helped the teacher set up equipment and student kits. The day of the activity on genetics, the student checked those materials again. As the activity began, she moved from lab station to lab station, helping students who were working in small groups.
Some students had difficulty grasping the instructions. Others were confused by the content or the scientific terminology. Ms. Talmadge tried to explain it, one teenager to another.
"Students are grateful," Ms. Talmadge said. "A lot of students like science, but they're hesitant to push forward." Sometimes, she added, "a kid that's more rebellious will give me more respect because I'm their age."...
Teachers who sign up for the BioBridge program attend a full-day workshop at the UC-San Diego campus, in which they discuss and plan lab activities. They also visit the university's research labs.
Participating teachers then recruit three or four of their students to serve as in-class leaders. The teachers and students work together at a Saturday workshop, held at a local high school, to plan the labs. The students also attend sessions at that same site on how to be effective classroom leaders.
Working directly with students in planning and carrying out science lessons is a new experience for most teachers, and for some it can be an awkward one, Ms. McSwain acknowledged.
At first, she said, she wasn't sure which students to choose or how prepared they would be to guide their classmates. Ms. McSwain's own relative youth—she's 30 and been told she looks almost as young as her students—added to her initial unease, she recalled jokingly.
"It's odd" for students at the outset, as well, Ms. McSwain said. "You're recruiting them into a kind of club. You kind of don't know what they're thinking. You've got them there on a Saturday," she added, "and they're doing science....
Students who take part in BioBridge, perhaps not surprisingly, tend to be accomplished in science, Mr. Babendure said. Some want to develop leadership skills; others may participate for extra credit, he said. Teachers are encouraged not to pick only A-plus students, he added, but also those below the top tier with a knack for motivating their peers.
One encouraging result of BioBridge is that it has drawn a fair number of shy students, particularly girls, who emerge from it with confidence and a deeper interest in biology, Mr. Babendure observed.
"We're hoping to show that it's cool being good at science," he said...
One possible benefit of BioBridge, Mr. Bartels said, is that teachers are receiving an impromptu tutorial—from students—on how to translate scientific language and concepts for teenagers.
"You want it to be informing the teacher on how to reach the student," Mr. Bartels said. "You would hope that teachers get a much more finely tuned ear for what the student experiences."