This could be a great opportunity to supplement or enhance the professional development, materials, programs, or technology in your school, especially if you have a tight budget. Before you agree, representatives from your school (including teachers and administrators) should meet with the university staff to ask questions, share ideas, and develop a project that will benefit all of the stakeholders (especially the students). I’ve been involved with several K-16 projects that had various interpretations of the word “partnership,” so from the beginning it’s essential to collaborate on a shared definition of terms and agreed-upon expectations for responsibilities and outcomes.
For example, in one very traditional project, the teachers attended workshops or courses conducted by the university during the school year. Teachers updated their content knowledge and became more familiar with technology and lab equipment. If you participate in this type of partnership, it is important to describe and assess not only what the teachers will learn, but also how this new knowledge will influence their classroom instruction.
In another project, university professors worked with teachers in hands-on activities over the summer on special topics aligned with the state science standards. During the school year, the professors visited the schools to interact with the K-6 students. Spending time in an elementary school was a new experience for them. They learned what challenges the teachers faced, including the variety of students (and size of the classes), the obligation to address state science standards, the type of equipment available in the schools, and the emphasis on testing in reading and mathematics. But they enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm of the students and were impressed by their questions and interest. The students had the opportunity to meet and work with real scientists. The disadvantage of this type of project is a “special event” atmosphere can occur. For any lasting impact, this should be an ongoing collaboration between the teacher and the professor, not just a few gee-whiz demonstrations by the professor while the teacher watches from the sidelines.
I’ve heard about mentoring projects during which teachers spent a summer working as research assistants at a university or science organization. They learned the content, lab procedures, and research models in use. They assisted with collecting and analyzing data. The teachers returned to their classrooms in the fall with new content knowledge, a sense of accomplishment, and insights into what is involved in scientific research. This type of mentoring required a commitment from both the teachers and the lead researchers. in addition, the teacher-researchers required training and background education on the research subject.
Then there are partnerships that give teachers access to the facilities of higher education: nature centers, museums, specialized equipment and expertise, tours of laboratories, access to library resources, invitations to special lectures or presentations, and field trip opportunities for students. Some higher education institutions have traveling science specialists that visit schools for demonstrations or assemblies.
Ask about the responsibilities the school will have in terms of recruiting teachers to participate, scheduling time, and providing support or materials. If the university staff will work directly with students, they may need clearances in compliance with state or local laws.
If the partnership is part of a university research project, teachers and students’ parents may be asked to sign consent or release forms, according to university policy. It should be clear what type of data the university will need to access or collect, for example student standardized test scores, observations, student pre-and posttests, teacher feedback, surveys, photographs/videos, or interviews. The ownership of any equipment should be established ahead of time, as well as who will be listed on any publications or press releases about the project.
In most partnerships, the K-12 teachers and the university faculty were compensated for the time they spend beyond their normal teaching duties.
Regardless of what your partnership project looks like, it will be important to ask: What happens at the end of the project? What knowledge, skills, materials, and self-confidence will the teachers have gained that will continue to improve student learning?