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GIFT turning teachers into summer scientists

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Lynn Swain and Landon Alberson pore over detailed digital maps and data on computer screens. They're learning software that will help them and their students study and monitor the water quantity and quality in their area.

For most of the year, Alberson and Swain teach high school science in Tift County, Ga. But for a month this summer, they and 14 other middle and high school science teachers from 10 south Georgia counties became working scientists through the Georgia Internships For Teachers program.

Classroom confines

"Teachers can sometimes become isolated in their classrooms," said Swain, who teaches environmental science courses. But the GIFT program, she said, breaks them out of the classroom confines and teams them with working scientists.

The teachers conduct research at the University of Georgia's Tifton, Ga., campus, and see firsthand the practical applications of things they teach their students.

Teachers are charged to take the experience back to their students and show them that science is more than just lectures and textbooks.

"The experience enriches our curriculum," said Alberson, who teaches biology.

Through his connection to the program last year, Alberson was able to show his students how science solves problems. He paired many of his students with science mentors on the Tifton campus.

GIFT works

"I've seen the GIFT program work for many years," said Susan Reinhardt, an education program specialist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"The teachers are excited about being involved with current scientific research, taking this information back to their students and linking textbook information with real-world applications," she said.

Making the grade

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Georgia's elementary and middle school students aren't faring well in science.

Only 23 percent of Georgia's fourth-grade science students perform at a proficient level, 5 percent fewer than the national average. Just 23 percent of Georgia's eighth-grade science students perform at a proficient level. That's 7 percent below the U.S. average.

The GIFT program was developed by Georgia Tech in 1991. Since then, more than 80 organizations and universities have provided this opportunity for about 1,000 teachers in 44 Georgia school systems.

GIFT, for the most part, has been offered to teachers in and around metro Atlanta, Savannah and Augusta, Reinhardt said. But this is the second year it's been offered in Tifton.

It's a paid experience for the teachers, she said. A grant provides funding, along with money from the participating school systems.

"It's a win situation for both groups," Reinhardt said. "Scientists become aware of the needs and expectations of teachers. And teachers understand the importance of producing more students interested in science."

High school students, too, are learning real-world science on the Tifton campus as part of the Young Scholar Summer Internship Program.

The six-week program pairs students with a serious interest in science and technology with working scientists. Students are exposed to many fields of scientific study, application and career opportunities.

(Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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