While most Bay Area children are out of school on summer vacation, a group of science teachers are learning to figure out the thickness of a molecule. They're a part of the Teacher Institute, a three week intensive training program at the Exploratorium that shows teachers from all over the Bay Area how to make science come alive in their classrooms.
"If these teachers are here for 100 hours of work in the summer, then they become part of our family," Teacher Institute co-director Paul Doherty said.
You might call Doherty the unofficial father of that family. He has a PhD in physics from MIT and he's been teaching teachers at the Exploratorium for 26 years.
On Thursday he got help from Bree Barnett Dreyfuss, a physics teacher in Pleasanton. Barnett came to the institute as a new teacher seven years ago. Now she's a mentor, because being a physics teacher can be lonely, "There could be one, maybe two physics teachers at a single high school," Bree said. "You are all by yourself, you have nobody to turn to."
The Teacher Institute assigns coaches to work with new teachers for two years. They provide great ideas and critical moral support.
"In the beginning of the year I had a room that had like a lot of dirty things in it, and she just sat and helped me clean glassware for like an hour as we talked about curriculum and ways to start things," El Cerrito science teacher Helene Burks said.
Oakland physics teacher Santiago Soliz adds, "In your first two years of teaching, everything is like about assessment and a lot of paperwork. You know, stuff that's all about beinga teacher, which is all really important, but this kind of brings it back to why most of us wanted to teach science in the first place."
The teachers also get access to a shop full of tools and instruction so they can create what they need for their classrooms. This kind of support is crucial for new teachers. Study after study indicates 30 to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years. But for teachers who go through the Exploratorium's program, 85 to 90 percent are still on the job.
About 100 teachers attend the institute every summer. It's so popular that two out of every three teachers who apply are turned away. That's about to change, because next spring, the Exploratorium moves to a new building with enough space to triple the number of teachers.
Written and produced by Jennifer Olney