TOPS Science History

  • Program Origin

    Teaching Opportunities for Partners in Science (TOPS) was initially conceived to bring retired scientists to elementary rural schools. The California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC) awarded a grant to Columbia College in Columbia, CA and the San Joaquin County Office of Education (SJCOE) in Stockton, CA to test the concept of TOPS during the 1993-1994 year.

    TOPS started as a pilot program with four science Partners, each assigned to a rural school in the three California counties of Tuolumne, Calaveras, and San Joaquin. The goals of the pilot program were to:

    1.  determine the feasibility of placing retired scientists in the schools,
    2.  explore the different roles scientists could play in the schools, and
    3.  determine the preparation needed by the school and the science Partner to make the program a success.

    As the pilot program proved that retired scientists and engineers were a great asset to a school's science education program, CPEC then awarded a three-year grant to Columbia College and SJCOE to expand the program and continue to test the concept of TOPS.

    During the 1994-1995 year, TOPS Summer Institute at Columbia College trained 25 retired scientists and engineers to become science Partners assigned to 25 elementary schools in the San Joaquin, Calaveras, and Tuolumne counties. During the year, the different roles the Partners could perform were more clearly defined. TOPS sponsored several support meetings to help the Partners share their experiences and develop an esprit de corps. During the 1995-1996 year, the program increased to cover 27 schools. To date, TOPS continues to be a viable program serving about 40 schools each year in several districts. Efforts are being made to disseminate the TOPS Program to other school districts, strengthen the training for Lead Teachers and Partners, and develop promotional and recruiting instruments. 


    In 2000-2001, four elementary schools in Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District (LVJUSD) agreed to become TOPS Partnership Schools. TOPS staff recruited and trained four local retired scientists to serve as Partners. The Partners, Lead Teachers, and Principals attended a planning workshop hosted by San Joaquin County Office of Education and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. Today, the TOPS Program has expanded to all ten elementary schools and four middle schools in Livermore.

    The successful participation of retired scientists in the classroom does not happen by chance. Most TOPS partners are recruited by personal contact at professional and social groups, such as Chamber of Commerce and Rotary, or local employers, such as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), Sandia, and General Electric. Once Partners are identified, the TOPS Coordinator is responsible for interviewing, screening, training, assigning, and supporting the Partner at the school for a year. The training of science Partners and Lead Teachers is the joint responsibility of both LVJUSD and SJCOE. The Executive Director of Curriculum and Special Projects, responsible for implementing the goals of TOPS, analyzes end of the year surveys to ascertain program effectiveness.

    A unique component of TOPS is the manner in which the program partners the expertise of career scientists with the pedagogical knowledge of Lead Teachers at each site. The lead teacher also provides the partner with specific information about classroom management, instructional strategies, and appropriate expectations for students based on the California Science Content Standards. Livermore TOPS Partners and Lead Teachers also participate in on-going professional development throughout the year. All Livermore TOPS Partners and Lead Teachers collaborate three times annually to share experiences and lessons that best support key scientific concepts, such as using lasers to demonstrate reflection and refraction or viewing blood flow in goldfish tails. Several Partners regularly attend the monthly elementary science specialist meeting to discuss effective implementation of the Investigation and Experimentation standards. Partners and teachers also attend the California Science Teachers Association Conference in the fall together. One Partner is a GEMS Associate (Lawrence Hall of Science Great Explorations in Math and Science) and regularly conducts workshops. The TOPS Summer Institute provides additional opportunities for all partners and teachers from Livermore and SJCOE to collaborate and share lessons, demonstrations, and strategies for science instruction.

    TOPS Partners volunteer on the average four hours per week in the classroom, with additional time devoted to designing and planning demonstrations for students in Grades 1 through 8. Most materials for lessons and demonstrations are sometimes available at the sites, and sometimes partners collect and modify everyday items from the garage or other sources. Our Partners design many grade appropriate demonstrations and post them on the District’s website for easy access by teachers.

    Through generous donation from General Electric and Sandia National Laboratory, LVJUSD purchased the Digitarium, a mobile digital planetarium. Our Partners have produced many planetarium shows and often lead classes of students on galactic journeys. The Digitarium is made available to family and community members to view shows at the Family Science Nights and Science Odyssey Science Fair.

    Lead Teachers also complete a survey each year and the response has been overwhelmingly in favor of this program. The benefits to the teacher include augmentation of science content knowledge, collaboration with professional scientists in designing lessons and demonstrations that accurately portray key concepts, and professional assistance in the classroom during science lessons and labs. Survey results also serve as discussion points for establishing goals for the next school year.

    Science and technology are important for the future of our democratic society. Students in our schools need to scientifically literate so they can be prepared to meet the challenges of tomorrow’ society. The TOPS Program has made a significant difference for our students. Over a three-year period, the percent of students scoring proficient and advanced on the fifth grade the State are 49%. The percent of students scoring proficient and advanced on the eighth grade science CST is 70% as compared with 58 % for Alameda County and 56% for the State. Our TOPS Partners provide the content knowledge and expertise to support science instruction. Students view our partners as role models for careers in science, engineering, and technology. During their interactions with students, Partners describe their accomplishments and the educational requirements needed to pursue a science career. The TOPS goals emphasize the need to reach minority and female students at an early age to spark an enthusiasm for science and to give a good foundation on which to build further study in the sciences. TOPS Partners actively engage all students through discourse during experiments to develop student confidence. Partners model the collaborative nature of science by encouraging classmates to discuss science concepts objectively, and by assisting with the design, implementation, and judging of over 500 student investigations at the LVJUSD Science Odyssey science fair. Our Partners also conduct complex, in-depth science investigations with students in the Gifted and Talented Education Program.

    Research has demonstrated that parental involvement in their child’s education improves achievement, and that students from low-income and culturally diverse families have the most to gain when school involves the parents. In 2010, TOPS Partners work closely with eight elementary school sites to organize and execute Family Science Night with Sandia National Laboratory. Family Science Nights provide an opportunity for families to learn science together as they move to different experimental stations. In this fun learning environment, TOPS Partners and Lead Teachers provide additional explanations of the key science concepts and answer the probing questions of curious participants.

    TOPS role in increasing student enthusiasm for all things science has not gone unnoticed. Livermore’s Management Association has awarded the TOPS Program the Friend of Education for 2009 for its contribution to the community and youth of the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District. In May 2008, U.S. Congressman Jerry McNerney presented the Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition to TOPScience for its efforts in promoting science education in the community. TOPS Partners have successfully secured funding from the Livermore Valley Educational Foundation, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Community Gift Program, Sandia National Laboratory, and General Electric Corporation. A TOPS subcommittee has been convened to pursue additional funding sources.

    The TOPS Program has successfully tapped into a vital segment of our community to provide critical support for science education at elementary and middle schools in Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District. It is the expressed intent of LVJUSD to encourage and support the continuation and expansion of this program in our schools in pursuit of the District goal that “each student will graduate with the skills needed to contribute and thrive in a changing world.”


    scientist with his hair sticking up while touching a Van de Graaf generator