Faculty Focus | Carlos Montero

“If students find science boring it is because you are not letting them be owners of their knowledge,” said NSU University School Science Department Chair Carlos Montero.

Montero is an AP chemistry teach, an executive board member of the American Modeling Teachers Association, and most recently a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. And his chemistry class is noisy. Small groups of students huddle around white boards. They take nothing at face value. A model explaining how rust forms is sketched. Different scenarios are tested. They observe. They debate. They ask each other questions. Montero circles the groups asking more questions. Each group makes a decision. Then the small circles break to form one giant circle. And they present, defend, discuss, and reach consensus as a whole.

Montero is passionate about students learning science by doing science. That’s why he seeks to broaden the use of Modeling Instruction in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) teaching practices at NSU, and beyond:

With $1 million, NSU University School could offer modeling workshops in chemistry, physics, and middle school science each summer, for five years, to 100 teachers in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, transforming the learning experience for approximately 10,000 students (to start).

With $5 million, we could create an institute that would put NSU on the leading edge of modeling pedagogy training. We could conduct research on the effectiveness of modeling, develop new materials, involve student teachers year-round, and engage underprivileged children during the summer. We could also develop programming for STEM Teachers of South Florida, a newly created group which aims to support the growth of teachers locally during the school year.

With $10 million… the mind boggles at what could be accomplished. But I am too embarrassed to ask for that much.

CHALLENGING CURIOSITY

Students need to feel that their curiosity and reasoning ability are being stimulated. One way to do that is to challenge them to explain some of the wonderous things that nature has to offer – color changes, explosions, lights, the art around us. It makes learning fun.

They also love it when they can understand how something works. I have had parents send me emails or they call and ask: ‘What you have done? We spent our whole dinner talking about how a straw works.’

That’s one of the things we do in our year one chemistry class; we challenge students to explain how a drinking straw works. Very few students, or adults for that matter, have any actual idea. Once students form an idea, they create a model that makes sense based on their observation and thinking.  Then they can take their model and apply it to other things. For example, how hydraulics works. 

I also really encourage the kids to talk to one another. When students first come to my class their expectation is to remain passive or to address me only, but in the scientific world advances occur through communication. I tell them, ‘you don’t have to convince me, you have to convince them. See them. Listen to each other.’ 

SEEING RESULTS

Students amaze me. When they are given the chance to come up with a hypothesis or theory, sometimes they will come up with exactly the same correct hypothesis that a scientist is renowned for. Granted, they have guidance, I am putting them in the right context. But they still have to come up with an answer. So sometimes they really develop Dalton’s theory; they come up with Avogadro’s theory. They don’t know it, however, until I say, ‘You’re brilliant! You’re not going to be famous because somebody already did it in the 1800s, but you just came up with the same conclusion on your own, based on all your observations and intelligence.’

Another thing that amazes me are students who always felt that they are not good at science. They tend to come in with a bad attitude. But I encourage and encourage them, and they try. They start giving it a chance. You see them changing. And then they feel really proud about themselves. They know ‘I can do this!’

In my AP class, we love the AP exam because it serves as validation of our work and our understanding. I think the AP exam is a well-designed test. And by the way, it was redesigned to assess true student understanding, and application of science practices, the same objectives that Modeling Instruction has.

It was wonderful to see [the AP exam writers] finally catching up, because nationwide, people are starting to understand more and more that the way it’s been for the last 60 years is not effective.  Everything is different now. The kids are different. Putting them in the same package as the 40s and 50s is not going to work.

A NUMERICAL POINT ISN’T THE REAL POINT

When education is reduced to getting the right answer so students can get a good grade, they tend to focus on just trying to give the teacher what they want so they can get a number instead of actually understanding, learning, or being scientists.

We try to keep the stress of the grades down. Students should feel comfortable enough that they don’t feel they have to show off, or be perfect. I tell them to ‘try something; don’t be afraid.’ And when they ask “but what if it’s wrong?” I tell them ‘99% of scientists are always wrong every time they try something new.’

People around my age and maybe even younger; we all learned a certain way. We passively sat in front of a teacher telling us what he or she knows. We then regurgitated this during a test to get a grade. That has many problems.

The main characteristic is student passivity. The student feels that he or she is always dependent upon a higher authority, instead of starting to believe in themselves scientifically. Students need to base answers on evidence, on their own ideas. ‘Why accept something is fact without a hint of skepticism? How do you know that the earth is moving around the sun, and not the other way around? You tell me that water is H2O, but how do I know?’

On a personal level, I want everyone to be as passionate about science as I am. It fascinates me so much that I just want to share that. On a more practical level, being able to think scientifically is really important long-term.

There’s a lot of competition with China and other countries who are actively trying to become better. Our kids need to learn how to become producers and innovators. So that’s another reason why I do this.

REAL WORLD EXPERIENCE

Modeling has a very good structure for letting students build their own knowledge. You [as a teacher] set the stage for that. You put them in the right place and let them think. There may be some instructions, but presenting them is never going to take more than five minutes. Because for the majority of time, they have to go out there and experience the world somehow. And then talk to each other and come up with their own models – hence the name “modeling.” Students explain how it works, basically telling a story, by using multiple representations such as drawings, mathematical functions, chemical equations, or just words.

We try to emphasize science practices. Evaluating data. Forming arguments. Things you can actually use in any professional field, not just science.

Students also have to stand up and talk to other students, as well as effectively communicate verbally and in writing. They have to present lab reports, summaries of what happened where I demand from them to be concise and clear.

At NSU University School the parents of many of our students are successful professionals. Some of them may be doctors and scientists, but very few are necessarily applying the concepts that their science teacher wanted them to memorize so they could get an ‘A’.  As a result, they often look back at their experience as a waste of time. But then when they see what the kids are doing now at NSU University School, they see how it is useful, and how it could apply to the scientific as well as to the business world.

BECOMING A LEADER IN MODELING PEDAGOGY

The education initiatives and the collegiality between teachers here at NSU University School are exciting. The main reason I started working here was the school’s commitment to innovative and effective teaching.

As chair of the science department, I welcome the challenge of transforming the way that science is taught at the upper, middle and lower school. The principles and practices of effective science pedagogy must be aligned through all levels. We are also committed to train teachers at other schools, because ultimately we care about science education in our country as a whole.

I think NSU and NSU University School can show themselves as leaders in the educational world by using the type of pedagogy that is really leading edge, and open up training to teachers throughout South Florida to start. What we have begun to do with modeling is one example.
For a teacher to be trained in Modeling Instruction it is vital to have at least three weeks of full immersion workshops from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day. Establishing these workshops is crucial for the change we wish to effect locally.

We also started a group called STEM Teachers South Florida to try to keep teachers motivated and collaborating throughout the year. STEM Teachers SoFl is an association of teachers, for teachers, about teaching which aims to eliminate the teacher isolation problem. Furthermore, through teacher interaction and collaboration we can all help each other improve our craft and become more effective.

To date, we have offered chemistry workshops twice, and introduced 40 chemistry teachers to modeling on a shoestring budget. A well-funded workshop including two experienced leaders and 20 participating teachers costs around $45,000. This includes a small stipend for the teachers participating.

I worked closely with Miami-Dade public schools and Broward County public schools to offer an incentive for the teachers, and this year, the county offered a stipend for the teachers to come. I applaud them for that. In 2006 I saw that FIU was going to pay $100 a day to attend a summer modeling workshop. I was a young teacher so I went. It changed my career. I was very lucky.

FIU’s grant has since expired, so the workshops are no longer being offered. The only physics modeling workshop for Florida right now is offered in Orlando.  NSU University School could easily host chemistry, physics, and the new middle school science workshops.

It is also vital that we supply some basic materials since a lot of the teachers who come and learn don’t have resources for their classes. When I went to my first workshop, I took a set of white boards home; they had a set for everybody. Little things like that make a big difference. We had “make and take” sessions where we would all get together and build something cheaply, but the workshop hosts provided all the raw materials and taught us how to do it. It kept us motivated. We all talked together, and we built something we could use in the classroom. I still have some of the same props I built nine years ago; I still use them.

IMPROVING YOUR CRAFT

STEM Teachers South Florida aims to support the growth of teachers during the school year.

The goal is to offer opportunities for teachers to interact and support each other. Through monthly meetings and workshops, we can continue to improve our craft. Regardless of how much experience you have, other people can have great ideas from which our students will ultimately benefit.

As I was training to be a Modeling Workshop leader, I was lucky to work with Larry Dukerich at Teachers College in Columbia University. Larry is a retired teacher who wrote the chemistry Modeling curriculum. During my training session, I was introduced to STEM Teachers of New York City, a wonderful organization with more than 400 members. STEM Teachers SoFL aims to replicate that model and I am certain that it will be a great start to transform science education locally. Having someone coordinate the STEM Teachers of Florida Association would be an immense help to this effort because as a full time teacher, time for administrative tasks is scant.

In addition to engaging each other, local science teachers will greatly benefit from the opportunity to collaborate on research with the NSU faculty as well as with professors from other universities. This partnership will help strengthen the content knowledge of high school teachers as well as giving faculty members a glimpse of the new science pedagogy implemented in the high schools. Ultimately, it is our students who will benefit the most from this partnership as they enhance their science literacy and become future productive members of society.

Presidential Award

Three Letters Supporting Monteros Succesful Submission

"Three years ago I walked into Mr. Montero's class a shy 10th grade Haitian girl, still grasping a love for science, and now I will graduate this year top of my class and attending California Institute of Technology, proudly pursuing chemical aspirations. ...The passion to wonder that Mr. Montero was able to affirm in me will never be forgotten and will carry me well into my professional career."
- Excerpts from a letter by a former student

"The most powerful kind of person in the world is the one who can inspire others to succeed and be self-aware. ... [Mr. Montero] was a tremendous driving force behind my continual improvement as a person. His influence propelled me to the United States Presidential Scholar award, my acceptance into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and ultimately, my incessant perseverance in my studies."
- Excerpts from a letter by a former student

"[After the Science Olympiads competition] it was like their team had just scored the winning touchdown or made the winning basket -- for an academic event -- they are chemistry athletes! Additionally, our science department chair stated, 'I have never seen students so enthusiastic about taking a test than I did this morning while I was administering it.' Students excited about taking a test? Now that is passion ignited!"
- Excerpts from a letter by Superintendent of Schools, Miami-Dade County