WATSONVILLE - You can't teach an old dog new tricks, but for teachers, learning is lifelong. A Watsonville high school science teacher was one of 39 California science teachers selected from among hundreds of applicants nationwide to receive a national fellowship from the National Science Teacher Association (NSTA).

Robert Hoffman, 29, a biology teacher at Pajaro Valley High School, was awarded the fellowship in 2011. The yearlong professional development program is designed to promote quality science teaching, increase teacher confidence and classroom excellence and supplement teacher science knowledge.

The 2011 fellowship program, which is sponsored primarily by The Dow Chemical Co. Foundation, selected 207 fellows on the basis of having solid science backgrounds and showing significant interest in growing as professional science educators.

As part of the program, fellows receive membership in the national organization, online mentoring with experienced teachers in the same discipline, and the opportunity to participate in a range of web-based activities such as webinars. Additionally, each fellow will have the chance to attend the NSTA National Conference on Science Education in Indianapolis in March.

"I was very excited about participating," said Hoffman, who teaches ninth grade integrated science and 10th-grade biology.

Hoffman is mentored by an experienced biology teacher from North Carolina, along with seven other mentees. The group holds online discussions several times a week. Teachers from different schools and states bring different perspectives, Hoffman said.

"We're all kind of in the same boat as new teachers," he said.

The fellows also engage in what are called inquiries, where they investigate a topic of their choice. For instance, Hoffman did an inquiry on "what is an effective lab," where he explored having students focus less on writing out pre-lab assignments and more on analyzing the data and drawing conclusions - a strategy he's found effective.

"It's just a great place to have access to people to talk to," Hoffman said of the online community of teachers. "It helps me reflect on my teaching and ways I can improve," he said.

Hoffman, a native of Lodi, comes from a family of teachers. He said he's known since high school that he wanted to teach, where he taught swimming and helped students gain confidence in the pool.

He earned a bachelor's degree in biology and a teaching credential at Chico State.

Inspired by the fellowship program's online format, Hoffman said he hopes to integrate more technology into his classroom. He has a grant to get a Smartboard and iPads for his students to use, which he hopes will engage students in learning.

Hoffman looks forward to seeing benefits of his fellowship experience translate into student success down the road.

"I'm still learning," said Hoffman, who's only been teaching three years. "I'm putting the pieces together, but I don't have the puzzle totally made yet."