K-12 Professional Development

Since 1989, the Science Education Department of the Center for Astrophysics has been developing high quality professional development (PD) resources for K-12 educators in science and mathematics. All the materials on this page were developed by the SED and are available free of charge to educators and PD providers.

A Private Universe and Minds of Our Own

A Private Universe

Why don't even the brightest students truly grasp basic science concepts? A Private Universe (1987) is an award-winning short documentary that received wide exposure at the time when science education reform was front and center in the public consciousness after the publication of the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk. It helped science education leaders focus attention on the issue of the persistence of misconceptions by featuring interviews with Harvard graduates and their professors, as well as with Heather, a bright ninth-grader, revealing to a wide audience that students hold onto false ideas in basic astronomy, even after an Ivy League education.

The documentary was followed by a series of programs that extended the discussion of student misconceptions in science, bringing to light many more examples from other fields of science.

  • A Private Universe (1987) The original 18-minute documentary, and special NSTA session, 20 years later, looking back at the video's impact.
  • Private Universe Workshops (1992) This series of nine 1.5-hour workshops was originally broadcast live in partnership with the Massachusetts Center for Educational Technology. It extended the exploration of student misconceptions to physics, chemistry, and life science. Built around longer clips of science classroom activities and student interviews, some not seen in other CfA programs, it also includes scientifically-correct explanations by guest experts and commentary from leading science education researchers.
  • Minds of Our Own (1997) The themes explored in the Private Universe documentary and teacher workshops are presented to a wider audience in three one-hour public television programs. Minds of Our Own makes the case that deeply-held misconceptions are part of the way we learn and delves more deeply into the origins of the ideas students bring to science classrooms. The final hour presents practical solutions for teachers who want to improve teaching and learning.

Beyond the Solar System (Expanding the Universe in the Classroom)

Structure and Evolution of the Universe Many new astronomy learners, students and adults alike, are unfamiliar with the universe beyond the solar system. The Beyond the Solar System Professional Development Project offers opportunities for deepening content knowledge and exploring strategies for teaching and learning about current scientific models and evidence for the origin and evolution of our universe of galaxies. Learn More...

Video-based K-12 Professional Development Programs

From 1994 through 2013, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Science Education Department produced over 160 hours of broadcast-quality, video-based professional development materials targeted to K-12 educators. With primary funding from the Annenberg Foundation and working in cooperation with Harvard University and other partners, these materials - presented by leading science education researchers - were intended as a toolbox for educators who wished to improve their practice. From 1996 through 2008, workshop series and individual video programs were distributed through the Annenberg Channel, a free, 24-hour satellite/cable TV network. In 2008, this content was moved on-line to Learner.org. From time to time, Learner.org discontinues distribution of selected archival materials, but to the extent possible, they will continue to be available at no cost on this site.

Interactive Workshops Series

In partnership with the Massachusetts Corporation for Educational Telecommunications, from 1994 to 1998, the Science Education Department's Science Media Group created professional development workshops focused on different topics in science and math education. These workshops were cablecast live to teachers and PD providers who convened in small groups at sites across the country. Sites could interact with the studio presenters via phone, email, and fax. Programs featured "roll-ins" - previously-recorded classroom segments and interviews - which served as discussion points for the interactive conversations. Later, recordings of the teleconferences were lightly edited and distributed as video workshops:

  • The Science of Teaching Science (1995) Eight 90-minute programs that provide motivation, encouragement, a variety of models, and support for K-12 teachers who want to explore ways of changing how they teach science.
  • Mathematics: What's the Big Idea? (1997) Using real-life patterns, models, and problems, the eight programs in this series link math education researchers with K-8 teachers of mathematics who reflect upon their own practices and discuss new ways of teaching math.
  • Assessment in Math & Science: What's the Point? (1998) This eight-part workshop examines innovative assessment issues and strategies in K-12 math and science classrooms. Video segments of real classrooms launched lively discussions among practicing teachers and content experts about different methods of assessments, including standardized testing, performance tasks, and embedded assessments.
  • The Next Move: Steps Toward Change in Elementary Math and Science (1998) This eight-part workshop explores issues in classroom change with the goal of helping teachers move toward more student-centered classrooms. The program's pre-recorded classroom segments featured K-5 teachers at decision-making points in actual teaching lessons, allowing viewers to discuss with colleagues how they might approach their "next moves," given similar circumstances."

Video Libraries

Beginning in the early 1990s, the Annenberg Foundation moved away from interactive studio workshops to build collections of related materials that could be used more flexibly by professional development providers and teacher educators. Each library was accompanied by PD materials which offered a suggested format for group study and discussion.

  • Case Studies in Science Education (1996) This series of 25 half-hour video programs and guides was designed as a collection of teaching case studies, similar in format to those used in law, business, and medical professional education, aimed at K-8 science teachers. The goal of each case study is to trigger, analysis, conversation, and reflection about science teaching. Shot entirely on location in a wide range of settings, from under-resourced urban schools to rural Tennessee, the 25 case studies provide a realistic and practical guide to science education interventions.
  • Looking at Learning...Again (1999) Eight one-hour programs that featured thoughtful commentary from widely-recognized authors and educators (Eleanor Duckworth, Hubert Dyasi, Howard Gardner, Constance Kamii, Joseph Novak, and Michael Resnick) intercut with documentary footage of science classrooms where their ideas were being put into practice.
  • Looking at Learning...Again, Part 2 (2000) A follow-up to the 1999 series, with profiles of eight additional science and mathematics education researchers (Carne Barnett, Marta Civil, Herbert Ginsburg, Wynne Harlen, Peter Hewson, James Kaput, Philip Sadler, Robert Swartz).

Professional Development for K-12 Principals

  • Principles for Principals (1999) A series of eight professional development programs designed for K-12 principals. Produced in cooperation with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the series provides a national snapshot of science and math education reform through the eyes of principals from a wide range of schools. Designed as professional development workshop for school leaders, it articulates the essential role of principals in implementing sustained and coherent change in math and science.

Science Content for K-5 Teachers

Created in response to the articulated need by K-5 teachers for a "refresher course" in basic physical science content, the 24 programs in the Science in Focus series deal with the bedrock concepts that students struggle with across the elementary school grade band. Clear, visually-compelling content explanations are intercut with real-life classroom footage of students engaged in best practice learning experiences around these concepts.

  • Science in Focus: Shedding Light on Science (1999) Using light as a theme to explore topics in physics, chemistry, biology, space science, and Earth science, this series focuses on explanations of light and color using a particle model of transmission, reflection, and absorption.
  • Science in Focus: Force & Motion (2001) Concepts of mechanics, such as force and acceleration, gravity, friction, air resistance, magnetism, tension, and compression are explored through classroom activities, discussions, and demonstrations (presented by permission of the Annenberg Foundation).
  • Science in Focus: Energy (2002) Energy has a key role in the everyday world: from motion, simple machines, and food, to the human body and the universe. With explanations by experts including the late MIT physicist Philip Morrison, the series shows how the physical science concept of energy differs from colloquial concepts of energy; how energy is conserved; and what happens when energy is converted from one form to another (presented by permission of the Annenberg Foundation).

Mathematics Education Reform

The Private Universe Project in Mathematics was created in partnership with Prof. Carolyn Maher and the Robert B. Davis Institute for Learning (RBDIL) at Rutgers Graduate School Education. Carolyn Maher and her team, in their ground-breaking longitudinal study of the development of mathematical thinking, followed the same cohort of public school students from second grade through high school. Working primarily in Kenilworth, New Jersey, a middle-class suburb of Newark, with additional documentation in other public schools in New Jersey, the RBDIL created a vast video library of research footage, which was tapped in part to create the following productions:

  • Private Universe Project in Mathematics Workshops (2000) With the goal to document what can be accomplished by young minds in mathematics, this eight-part series follows the RBDIL researchers as they presented progressively more difficult mathematical challenges and captured on video not only evidence of the development of the students' mathematical reasoning and argument, but also their enthusiasm and growing love of mathematical problem-solving. Following the study cohort all the way high school AP calculus, the series applies the lessons learned in the study to other classrooms.
  • Surprises in Mind (2000) A one-hour public television documentary exploring how our native mathematical abilities, with proper nurture, can be expanded from childhood through K-12 and college education, to be expressed in the worlds of architecture, business, and music.

Standards-Based Science Content for K-8 Teachers

From 1999 through 2014, the Science Education Department Science Media Group produced on-line content courses for science educators. The first series, Essential Science for Teachers, was launched in 2004 for K-8 educators who wished to reinforce their understanding of basic science concepts that were receiving new accountibility along with the introduction of new standards-based curricula.

  • Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space (2004) Exploring topics that range from how soil forms, to plate tectonics and the solar system, this series places the Earth in the physical context of systems that operate at different scales. Like the Physical Science and Life Science series, each of the eight one-hour videos shows common student misconceptions in the "Science Studio" where students discuss their own pre-existing ideas, followed by scientifically-correct explanations, often presented in the field by practicing scientists and in actual classroom practice by master teachers.
  • Essential Science for Teachers: Physical Science (2004) A central concept of physical science, the particulate nature of matter, is applied to atoms and molecules, along with concepts of the conservation of matter, floating and rising, and chemical and nuclear reactions.
  • Essential Science for Teachers: Life Science (2004) This series examines what makes life different from non-life; how life is organized and sustained; how variation, adaptation, and natural selection lead to change in species over time; and how energy and materials are cycled through organisms and ecosystems.

Graduate-level On-Line Science Courses

From 2007 to 2014, the Science Education Department produced four on-line science content courses for teacher professional development. Each one includes streaming video content, a extensive on-line text, and interactive labs. The accompanying Facilitator Guides assist PD providers who wish to offer the courses for professional development credit.

  • The Habitable Planet: A Systems Approach to Environmental Science (2007) Produced in association with the Harvard University Center for the Environment, with distinguished contributors from Harvard, MIT, and other university faculties, the course was designed to boost high school teachers' background knowledge and offer their students advanced studies in environmental science. The course's 13 on-line chapters are accompanied by half-hour videos consisting of two case studies, each documenting a different environmental research program. Five interactive simulation labs allow on-line learners to gain first-hand experience manipulating content presented in the chapters.
  • Physics for the 21st Century (2010) Beginning where most introductory physics courses end up, this course focuses on the most exciting, cutting-edge topics in physics today. The 11 chapters of Physics for the 21st Century examine several of the big unknown questions that are normally delayed until the second or third year of graduate school: string theory, dark matter, quantum computing, and many others. With on-line text contributed by some of the most prominent researchers in the physics research community, it also contains course videos showing 22 case studies of current research filmed on location in universities and labs around the world.
  • Neuroscience & the Classroom: Making Connections (2012) What do advances in understanding the biology of the human brain have to do with classroom practice? In fact, a lot. Top neuroscience researchers, including Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, from the USC Rossier School of Education, and Kurt Fischer of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, distilled their research findings in this emerging field, taking cutting-edge neuroscience research out of the laboratory and into meaningful guidance for classroom practice. The course content is designed to be coherent and relevant to K-12 teachers in all grade levels and all disciplines.
  • Chemistry: Challenges and Solutions (2014) Designed to answer the question often asked by students, "Why is this important?" this 13-session course is centered on the contributions of chemistry to solving real-world problems. Aimed at undergraduates and other adult learners, it encompassess all the concepts taught in a first-year chemistry course. Each of the half-hour videos includes clear and entertaining explanations, chemical demonstrations (yes, explosions!), and visits to factories, labs, or farms where concepts are applied to practical applications. Interactive labs that accompany the course include The Chemistry of Running and Control a Haber-Bosch Ammonia Plant.

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Black Holes: Space Warps & Time Twists is a traveling museum exhibition that immerses visitors in the modern search for black holes through a variety of interactive and multimedia experiences.

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