ATLANTA - Melissa Rayford, a veteran ninth-grade science teacher, happily traded in her cherished summer vacation for a lab coat.
Through a Georgia Institute of Technology fellowship, the Augusta teacher headed to the Medical College of Georgia for the opportunity of a lifetime.
"I was working with the human cells and actually injecting DNA into the cells," Ms. Rayford said. "I had never seen that before. It was kind of like playing God. You were getting to do things most people couldn't even imagine."
She spent six weeks working in the neuro-biology lab at the teaching hospital, where researchers were studying the medical effects of marijuana on rats.
"Just having this experience will help me better teach my students," she said. "I can better explain why science is important and when they'll need it in their futures."
For 10 years, Georgia Industrial Fellowships for Teachers, known as GIFT, have allowed teachers to observe real-world applications of science and mathematics through businesses.
"When kids have questions, they don't want to hear you read out of the book, because they read the book, too," Ms. Rayford said. "This is the show-me generation. They don't want to hear what you have heard about."
This fall her students will begin keeping detailed laboratory notebooks detailing exact steps taken in classroom experiments. Ms. Rayford decided to institute the practice after watching the researchers painstakingly record every procedure during her summer.
Another GIFT teacher, after spending time with Georgia Power Co., plans to have his students study the school's waste-management plan, using scientific methods to determine where cost-saving changes can be made with math calculations.
"Teachers are very excited about seeing new things, and to have the chance to get out of the classroom and into the world in which those skills they are teaching are utilized," said Dan Funsch, who teaches physics to seniors at Alleluia Community School in Augusta and has worked with the GIFT program for four years. "We're seeing teachers getting inspired in ways they hadn't really anticipated."
Teachers apply for the four- to eight-week program and are selected based on how well they plan to use their fellowship experience in the classroom. This year 80 teachers were accepted in the program.
"This is a much bigger thing than giving the teachers any eye to the business world," Mr. Funsch said. "Teachers are required to develop a very substantial plan to bring what they've learned into the class. This is more than just show some pictures and show them what you did."
GIFT placements are scattered across Georgia, concentrating in Atlanta, Savannah, Macon, Athens and Augusta. There are plans to expand the program to Columbus and Albany. Sponsoring groups have included Georgia Power, IBM, Emory University, UPS and Zoo Atlanta.
Teachers also have learned to develop relationships with businesses to enrich their classes.
Ms. Rayford said she discovered the Medical College of Georgia's staff was more than willing to visit classrooms and lend equipment for experiments.
"I would have felt uncomfortable about going to them and asking them to help me out," she said. "But now, I definitely will call them. I'd like to have them come out and bring centrifuges so students can see how they are used."
Though the program takes a large commitment from teachers, sponsoring businesses also pledge to make sure the experience is beneficial. GIFT officials said supporting the fellowship does break the usual cycle around the office or research lab, but it makes a dramatic difference in the teaching of children.
"We are talking about radically changing the way courses are taught," Mr. Funsch said. "We're finding teachers are really working to figure out how they can teach concepts better and engage students more fully."
Reach Shannon Womble at (404) 589-8424.
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