Maps showing the Tanzania National Parks. Discussions of a three-week trip to a far-off continent. Chatter about gear needed to climb a 19,336-foot peak.
Elementary and secondary school teachers gathered in a room at Lawrence Street Center, but this was no ordinary staff meeting. With the maps, boxes of pizza and even a simulated campfire in a darkened classroom, teachers beamed as they got their first taste of this out-of-the-box approach to education.
XSci, the Experiential Science Education Research Collaborative in the School of Education & Human Development, rolled out its Africa 2012 kickoff meeting last month. And while XSci has taken teachers to Africa, including a hike up Mount Kilimanjaro, four other times, the summer 2012 trip marks a milestone for the experiential learning program.
"We're providing extraordinary experiences for teachers in scientific learning," said Brad McLain, co-director of XSci. "This time is different because the Merck Company Foundation is funding teachers to go from Colorado who would not normally be able to afford this experience."
Merck awarded a grant of $900,000 to the University of Colorado Foundation Inc. to support the XSci Extraordinary Educator Experiences for the next three years as well as other initiatives.
The Merck grant funds the development of a model for experiential learning that positively impacts teacher identity. The grant includes a national website for dissemination and interaction on experiential learning, a national conference on experiential learning in Denver in 2014 and development of XSci satellites in other states, the first of which is in Michigan. Also, one portion of the grant supports 15 Colorado teachers to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and go on safari in summer 2012 and 15 Michigan teachers to go on a similar African trip in 2013.
The Michigan XSci satellite is working with the Michigan Science Center Association, a collaboration of 25 centers in Michigan.
"They're financing the research program behind (the Extraordinary Educator Experiences), so we can actually grow the XSci team quite a bit," McLain said of the Merck grant. "We'll be able to expand our theoretical base from the research, articulate our model for how these learning experiences are best run, export our model to a satellite location in another state and, hopefully, we'll be able to continue that trend so we can export the XSci model to other universities nationwide."
The idea is to give teachers such unparalleled experiences in the scientific world that they transfer that excitement to their students. The enthusiasm is already gushing from Melissa Lewis, one of 15 teachers selected out of 405 who applied during a 10-day window.
"Africa has always been my dream trip," said Lewis, who teaches earth science, biology and anatomy at Dakota Ridge High School. "I talk about Kilimanjaro every year. I talk about Olduvai Gorge every year. I expect to take away even more passion and excitement about it."
Lewis, a teacher for eight years, said experiential learning translates into making science more fun for students.
"I think it breaks the mold that a scientist must be a person who works in a lab coat in a cell somewhere," she said. "You can do science and still have fun."
Around the simulated campfire, McLain told the teachers they were selected because they met specific criteria, including the goal to select some teachers who don't have much science background.
"Many of you haven't traveled much. Many of you are out of your comfort zone in science," McLain said. "All of you will be out of your comfort zone in Africa. We're really hoping that this can be a transformative experience for you, but we want you to start thinking about stories and how important they are to learning."
Bill Thielke, who will graduate from CU Denver in May with a secondary science education degree, said he looks forward to bringing back experiences and stories to share with his students.
"There's a lot of different subject areas I can go into with this -- biology, plant life, energy flows and ecosystems," he said. "For every unit I teach, I can think of something I can use from this trip."
The XSci collaborative works on several strands of research related to confident teacher practice and student science literacy, according to Mike Marlow, XSci co-director.
"This particular strand (the experiential trips) is dealing with the development of science identity, impacting these teachers' sense of who they are and their ability to then bring science back to the classroom," Marlow said. "The idea is to excite their kids, engage the kids, because the teachers have done these kind of things."
This summer's Africa trip, with the help of Merck's funding, sets XSci up for longer-term funding and expansion of its programs.
All Thielke knows is that next summer's trip will not only inspire him about science, but serve as a platform to inspire students for years to come.
"It serves as a motivational thing for students," he said. "I can tell them, 'Hey, if an old guy like me can climb Kilimanjaro, you can do anything.'"