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Klopfer sparks interest in teaching, learning science and math

Hal Scheintaub, a teacher at Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Mass., and Milton High School teacher Mary Letourneau use a program called StarLogo developed at the Media Lab to help high school science teachers develop computer simulations for their classrooms. They were at a workshop held at MIT earlier this month.
Hal Scheintaub, a teacher at Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Mass., and Milton High School teacher Mary Letourneau use a program called StarLogo developed at the Media Lab to help high school science teachers develop computer simulations for their classrooms. They were at a workshop held at MIT earlier this month.
Photo / Laura Wulf

When Eric Klopfer taught middle and high school teachers to integrate computers into the curriculum, he found that it was difficult at times to get the teachers to relate to the new technology.

Klopfer, director of MIT's Teacher Education Program and assistant professor of science education, is continuing the challenge from both sides of the desk. He works with aspiring and experienced teachers to bring the excitement of science learning through technology to the classroom.

"Authentic science is about a process: sharing ideas, working together; design, testing and refinement. If we can bring that feeling into a [K-12] school, we will hopefully improve science education," he said.


Klopfer spends half his time working with MIT students who want to get teaching certificates along with their diplomas, and the other half working with teachers who want to use technology in their classrooms in innovative ways.

Using the program StarLogo developed by Professor Mitchel Resnick of the Media Lab, Klopfer helps teachers develop computer simulations for their classrooms. StarLogo is particularly well-suited for artificial life projects. For example, a simulation can be created of a population of rabbits that forage for food, reproduce and escape from predators.

StarLogo is a programmable modeling environment for exploring decentralized systems -- systems in which orderly patterns can arise without centralized control. With StarLogo, you can model (and gain insights into) real-life phenomena such as bird flocks, traffic jams, ant colonies and market economies. Klopfer is co-author with Resnick and Vanessa Stevens Colella of a new book, "Adventures in Modeling" (Teacher College Press). It contains 10 challenges for designing systems using StarLogo.

This is the fourth summer Klopfer is holding workshops on using StarLogo in the classroom. It is his second year at MIT. So far, he has worked with more than 200 teachers. One of them is Hal Scheintaub, a science teacher at Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Mass.

"Last year I had a dream," Scheintaub said. "In that dream, I saw my students experiencing the excitement of the new sciences.

"I saw them exploring complex systems. I saw them getting a sense of the importance of interactions, not only actions, in shaping events. I saw the possibility that their world view would expand to include cooperation as well as competition as driving forces in the world, in their world."

Scheintaub said Klopfer and Colella "helped make that dream a reality for me and my accelerated biology students." In his class, the students used StarLogo to discover ecological and evolutionary principles. They programmed the actions of individuals and were surprised at the behaviors of populations. They could see the importance of randomness and multiple interactions and complexity in living systems.

The students' response was positive, with many saying that they especially liked the computer models and labs. "It was enjoyable and intriguing," reported one student.

Scheintaub is helping Klopfer with this summer's StarLogo workshop July 9-20 and will continue to work with him in the coming year. (Anyone interested in seeing the workshop attendees' presentations of their computer simulations on July 20 may contact Klopfer at x3-2025.)


A handful of MIT students -- up to 15 or 20 each semester, from almost every academic area -- hear about the Teacher Education Program and join. There is no application. The program was started by Jeanne S. Bamberger, professor of theater and music arts, in 1995 in part to meet the growing need for science and mathematics teachers. Klopfer said the program tends to draw more students from the sciences than from humanities and engineering, and that it can typically accommodate a few more students than it gets each semester.

"We don't produce a lot of teachers or people who are going to teach for 20 to 30 years. Most won't teach more than five years. Some think they may want to teach some day but they're not sure what they want to do. Some want skills to run education-related activities," Klopfer said. "I hope we do produce teachers who can bring science experience outside of lecture halls into the classroom."

After taking three classes at MIT and one at Wellesley College, student-teaching through Wellesley, and passing the state teachers' exam, MIT students can get an advanced provisional teaching certificate that allows them to teach at the K-12 level for five years. If they want to continue after that, they would have to get a master's degree and take more education coursework.

"An advantage of our approach to teacher education is that almost never do ed-school students do scientific or engineering research. Here, we don't have education majors. These students do UROPs. They're getting into labs to do science. That's something coming to the classroom with them," Klopfer said.


A biology major at Cornell, Klopfer conducted research on the breeding behavior and population dynamics of tree swallows. As an undergraduate, he taught introductory biology to other undergraduates.

For his Ph.D. degree from the University of Wisconsin, his thesis used computer simulations to explore ecological and evolutionary consequences of spatial structures in exploiter-victim systems such as host-parasite and predator-prey situations.

When a teacher later asked if she could use the thesis in her ecology class, Klopfer found that he enjoyed reworking it into a teaching tool. He became a teaching assistant in the Wisconsin Teacher Enhancement Program, helping teachers use their knowledge of biology to use the scientific method in a course on environmental biology.

He moved to Amherst, Mass., and developed software tools for a University of Massachusetts biology class. He worked with teachers and students in the Amherst middle and high schools to integrate computers into the curriculum across all disciplines. As a National Science Foundation fellow and lecturer, Klopfer co-developed a master's in education program for the University of Massachusetts School of Education.

Klopfer says efforts like his will help Massachusetts teachers meet the new requirements to incorporate engineering into the curriculum.

"It's a chance for kids to get do something hands-on that integrates science, math and technology," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on July 18, 2001.

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