Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.
Deborah Cornelison is happy to see that American society has started placing a higher value on science education. In the past decade, government officials, business leaders, and educators have argued that training in science, technology, engineering, and math must be a national priority—because it can help students land jobs with international giants like Google or Tesla and join the global economy. Yet references to global economic competition, Cornelison told me, often fall flat in rural communities, such as her hometown of Ada, Oklahoma. Some rural students don’t want to leave their small towns, which many of them view with deep pride and a sense of belonging.
Cornelison, who was a high-school science teacher for 26 years before she joined the Oklahoma Department of Education, designed her classrooms in a way that would engage students who don’t primarily view the benefits of education in terms of a prestigious job or college-acceptance letter—or who may not want to pursue a science career at all. When I spent a week with Cornelison in March 2018, she explained how she shows students a broader appeal of science, including how to use science projects to improve their own communities. This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.
Kristina Rizga: You’ve received national awards for your teaching, especially around project-based learning. Could you explain what that looked like in your classroom?
Deborah Cornelison: All of my students’ projects—whether they were individual or group projects—were always centered around identifying real problems in the community, gathering meaningful data, setting up experiments, and then finding solutions. The way I taught changed a great deal since I began teaching in 1988. But I always wanted our projects to go beyond the typical cookbook lab experiences, in which students are asked to just follow the directions, which tell you exactly what to do and what to confirm. I wanted my students to learn skills that would help them be more successful in life and work: exploration, critical thinking, and problem-solving through collaboration.
For example, one group of ninth graders worked on a research project investigating carbon-dioxide levels in the classrooms of Byng Junior High School. First, they tested almost every classroom in our building, and found that the carbon-dioxide levels in some places were much higher than they should be—particularly in crowded classrooms after lunch. Students analyzed blueprints for the building and discussed their findings with the maintenance director responsible for heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems. Together, they came to the preliminary conclusion that it was probably a matter of how much fresh air the building was bringing in. It costs more money to heat and cool that fresh air, so systems are sometimes adjusted as a cost-saving measure. The amount of fresh air was increased to improve air quality, with re-testing until carbon-dioxide levels were within recommended levels.
Another group of students worked on a project about healthy foods, and as a result, brought back our cafeteria’s salad bar, which had been removed. They began by surveying students about what they were eating for lunch and what they wanted changed. They interviewed the cafeteria workers for corroborating evidence. They engaged experts, analyzed their data, and wrote a presentation about healthy eating habits—which they then used to educate their peers. Then they presented their findings to the superintendent.
One project researched the impact of sleep deficit in teenagers. They had all their classmates complete sleep logs for two weeks as they gathered data. They researched data on the importance of sufficient sleep and habits that improve sleep, such as waking up at the same time every day, limiting the use of electronics before bedtime, and increasing exercise. They then made a presentation to the school board and educated the community about the importance of sufficient sleep—and in their post-project surveys of students in our school, they learned that 90 percent of them said that they improved their sleeping habits.
Sometimes, students’ projects changed state policies: One of them developed better school-emergency plans, like yearly lockdown drills, and that inspired a state law that extended these plans to all campuses in 2007.
Rizga: Did you intend for your science classes to also teach civic engagement?
Cornelison: I always wanted to find ways to show students how science can help us address global problems at the local level and allow students to experience a sense of agency. It’s such a huge motivator for teenagers.
Rizga: You believe in giving students a choice of what to investigate in their projects, but did all of them always know what they wanted to research on their own?
Cornelison: No, sometimes students didn’t know. I helped them find their topics by encouraging them to read the news and look for issues that they were interested in investigating and doing something about. Throughout my career, I also kept folders on different topics with cut-out newspaper or magazine articles on various issues that might be of interest for students. With some research, reading, and discussion, we always settled on something meaningful.
Rizga: What are some additional skills that your students learned by doing projects, rather than engaging with science in a more traditional way through lectures and occasional labs?
Cornelison: They still learned the content and the scientific process, but they also gained so many other meaningful skills that will help them in their lives: working together as a team, delegating work, problem-solving, managing time, planning, presenting ideas to others, and working with members of the community to implement positive solutions. They learned how to deal with the frustration and confusion that can come from charting your own path. They learned how to seek help from others, and that they should help others themselves. They developed their analytical side and were able to use their creative skills.
They also became really good writers, because they had to explain everything they did and analyze it coherently. In fact, much of the support and individualized teaching happened through writing, as I was helping my students make sense of their work: What did you actually find? What does it all mean? Why does it matter? I really got to see their thinking through this process, and that’s how I built my relationships with students. And then almost every year, my students rehearsed for weeks before presenting their findings in front of their peers or the school board, or at teacher-parent conferences or state and national STEM events. Presentations really increased the stakes and the motivation.
The beauty of these projects, I believe, is that at the end—after all the struggles—they truly felt like they owned it. It was their data. It was their work. They were truly proud, and most still tell me that it was the highlight of their high-school years.
Rizga: In what ways did your teaching change with experience?
Cornelison: I started out teaching the way I’ve always been taught myself: with lectures and some labs where the students just followed directions to confirm some concepts. That evolved into a different way, often starting with an activity where students discovered something and discussed their findings together. So instead of just focusing on right or wrong answers, which is important in science, also helping them reflect on their thinking. This means learning how to move from questions that require yes or no answers or a content response to questions that reveal a depth of knowledge: “Tell me more” or “What does that mean?”
Over time, I also prioritized providing feedback on work that involved students showing their thinking, and clearing up any misunderstandings. After teaching the same concepts year after year, you learn to be proactive about addressing those misconceptions—but you also know that sometimes it takes multiple exposures to concepts in different ways to develop that deeper understanding. This growth is really tied in with professional development, because the more you learn about effective, research-based teaching practices and what to look for as evidence of learning, the more you can incorporate them.
Rizga: What kind of professional development helped you grow the most?
Cornelison: Teachers often think professional development is what the school brings to them—but to me, professional development is what I chose to do to address the specific challenges I experienced in my classrooms. And much of it was through informal learning, like collaboration and reflections with my colleagues on successful science research projects and how we can improve them. Almost every year that I taught, I also went to the National Science Teaching Association conferences, which exposed me to cutting-edge ideas and new tools, like an effective virtual lab or a fun game for reviewing concepts. I also went through the National Board Certification process in 1998, which really improved my practice.
Rizga: What kind of collaboration with your colleagues was most useful and effective?
Cornelison: I think it's very useful to visit each other’s classrooms and discuss what you observed and can bring to your own classroom. Also, focusing on student work: What is student work showing you that you can learn from? The student work should provide the evidence of rigor in your classroom.
Rizga: What helped you stay in the classroom for 26 years?
Cornelison: My class wasn’t a tested subject, and that gave me a lot of freedom to do innovative things. In our school there wasn’t a lot of focus on test prep. Had I been in a school that put a lot of emphasis on that, it would have been very difficult for me to reconcile that with my beliefs about effective teaching. My work was always standards-based, but my students could always see how science standards applied to their lives and their communities.
Rizga: Does teaching experience matter?
Cornelison: If a teacher has been learning every year, they will know much more in 20 years than in five. A more experienced teacher, I believe, has a broader and deeper knowledge of their content and a better perspective on what works and doesn’t work with different learners. An older teacher will be more mature and have more life experiences, which may include parenting. This aids their understanding of children. And if a teacher is effective and has taught for a long time, she has a more extensive network of colleagues.
Rizga: What would have made your practice more effective?
Cornelison: More planning time during the school day to create stronger, more intentional lesson plans and collaborate with colleagues. Fewer and longer class periods every day. Most of our classes are only 45 minutes. More collaboration among grade-level colleagues to promote interdisciplinary learning. We didn’t collaborate much.
Rizga: What kind of values did you try to embody in the classroom?
Cornelison: I tried to be very genuine. I wanted my students to know that I’m a real person, especially as I was recognized for teaching. I wanted them to know that I had a lot of failures, and that my successes came from a lot of learning from other people and from their support. I wanted them to know who I was as a person and encouraged them to explore what they were interested in, too. I valued their efforts and tried to model a strong work ethic. I always tried to be fair. I cared about them, but I wasn’t their buddy. We had fun together and joked around, but I was the adult and the professional in the room.
This article is part of our project “On Teaching,” which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.