Doctoral Students in Science Education Connect Research, Policy and Practice

Abell Institute mentors and students discuss the importance collaboration plays in helping young scholars engage the larger scientific community and strengthen their research. [AAAS/Carla Schaffer]

Bahadir Namdar, a doctoral student in science education at the University of Georgia, has long had an interest in improving classroom instruction in the sciences. Since he was a high school student in Turkey, he said, he was “always interested in teaching my cousins about science.”

He is now researching ways to bring current technologies into the classroom to help make science courses “more meaningful and accessible to students.”

Namdar was one of two dozen young scholars of science education who discussed their doctoral research projects with experienced mentors at a week-long program co-hosted by AAAS. They also learned about ongoing efforts worldwide to improve science teaching through the use of rigorous research methods.

The Sandra K. Abell Institute for Doctoral Students gave the Ph.D. students access to eight established researchers on science education. The students worked in small groups on issues related to their research, received tips on how to hone their research skills, and made networking contacts that should help them as they embark on their research careers.

Julie Luft, a professor of science and mathematics education at the University of Georgia and a co-organizer of the institute, said “scholars who have come through this Institute have really done well” in their subsequent academic careers. Angie Calabrese Barton, professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, was the other co-organizer of the 15-19 July institute.

The theme of the biennial institute, which is modeled on a similar summer gathering in Europe called the European Science Education Research School, was connecting research on science education to classroom practice and policy issues such as the Next-Generation Science Standards.

“There is a pressure on science education research to become more meaningful to policy and practice,” said Jan Van Driel, a professor of science education at Leiden University in the Netherlands and one of the mentors at the meeting. In the Netherlands, he said, “Science teachers are now more open to science education research than they were 20 years ago.” They are more aware of it, he said, and more willing to consider doing or participating in research in their own classrooms.

The scholars stayed at George Washington University during the meeting and came to AAAS for four days of intensive workshops and lectures, including a talk by Jo Ellen Roseman, director of Project 2061, a long-term AAAS program to improve science literacy in the United States.


Jo Ellen Roseman, director of Project 2061 [AAAS/Earl Lane]


Abell Institute students and mentors [AAAS/Robert Beets]

The summer institute offers participants the sort of support and feedback on their research that has not always been available. “When I did my Ph.D. we were basically on our own,” Van Driel said. It also provides diverse perspectives on issues in science education, issues that Van Driel said are much the same in both the United States and abroad. As an example, he noted there is a lot of research in the United States on teaching science to children from under-privileged backgrounds. In the Netherlands, he said, “We wouldn’t label it as such, but a big issue in our country is how to teach science, or how to teach in general, [those] children with very different backgrounds, very different needs, very different talents.”

Phyllis Haugabook Pennock, a doctoral student at Western Michigan University, said the institute has “already proving to be very motivational for me…It’s inspirational.” She is looking at how at how African American girls learn to construct scientific arguments. Such understanding is a key to science literacy, she said, and the ability to do critical thinking about such topics as cloning, genetic engineering and environmental degradation. Science teachers can engage students by trying more culturally relevant approaches, she said, that accept some of the experiences students bring into the classroom. They may have seen the impact of pollution in their neighborhoods or on the health of family members, for example.

Elizabeth Hufnagel of Pennsylvania State University, who has been studying how students use emotional language in writing about environmental issues, also is interested in how teachers can use the experiences students bring to the classroom. While the public may perceive scientists as being objective and emotionless, she said, “The scientists I have spoken to certainly have emotions” about their research. Students also can have strong feelings about environmental topics, she said, and that may open more avenues for understanding the underlying science. “There is work in environmental psychology around the idea of emotions as being important in just understanding the complexity of environmental problems.”

The Institute has allowed Hufnagel to connect with colleagues and draw inspiration from those who well know what it is like to undertake doctoral research, including the lonely days when “it’s me and the data.”

Alicia Alonzo, an associate professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, said it is important for young researchers to connect with their peers. It allows them to “start thinking of themselves as part of a scholarly community,” she said, and gives them “an opportunity to get a much broader perspective on their work.”

The summer institute is named in memory of Sandra K. Abell, a professor of science education at the University of Missouri who was instrumental in conceptualizing, planning, and hosting the first institute in 2009. Sandra died of ovarian cancer in 2010. The 2013 institute was sponsored sponsors by the National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST), AAAS, the University of Georgia, Michigan State University, and Michigan State’s CREATE for STEM Institute, which seeks to improve teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.