Science Education Program Blossoming with Added Support
Photo: from left, Feng Jiang, Ryan Walker, Jennifer Purcell-Coleman, Kim Murie, Pongprapan Pongsophon, Amy Ricketts, Lisa Wood, Virginia Rhame, Peggy Ward, Adnan Al-Rubaye, William McComas
When Ryan Walker attended a national education conference in January with other students in the University of Arkansas science education program, he was surprised to find that his institution had one of the largest groups in attendance.
"It was amazing," said the doctoral student from Washington state. "We had seven people from the University of Arkansas attending the conference of the Association for Science Teacher Education. The next largest group had two or three graduate students. We were a powerhouse."
The science education program based in the College of Education and Health Professions enjoys strong support from both the college and the university. The Graduate School provides funds for graduate students at the university to attend one conference as an observer. The expectation is that the student will be a presenter at a future conference.
"It gives us a chance to see what's going on and to prepare ourselves well for the experience," Walker said.
At this particular conference, several of the Arkansas students and faculty members presented research, and Walker, Jennifer Purcell-Coleman and Peggy Ward are active members in the Graduate Student Forum, which Walker chairs.
Walker previously taught science in Natchez, Miss., before he and his wife, Sarah, moved to Fayetteville. He specifically sought out this program in science education because of its reputation.
"I'm very excited to be part of the team," he said. "We have an excellent group of people with research interested in almost every area of science education."
Michael Wavering was the science education program at the University of Arkansas for more than 20 years. The associate professor of secondary education worked with other faculty members in the department of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education and Health Professions and faculty in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences primarily to prepare science teachers for junior high and high school.
"I was the only secondary science education faculty member for 20 plus years," Wavering recalled. "There was an elementary science person for a while."
Wavering continues to serve as coordinator of the college's secondary education program.
"The major change over that time was the move from a traditional four-year teacher licensure program to the five-year Master of Arts in Teaching program 15 years ago," he said.
Students earn a master's degree in that fifth year while completing a teaching internship during the school year. The program works with 15 school districts, up from four districts a few years ago, to place interns at the secondary level for rotations.
"Other changes occurred based on accreditation and state licensing requirements," Wavering continued.
Those requirements changed emphasis from the traditional science areas of chemistry, physics, biology, general science and earth science to two, more general areas: life/Earth science and physical/Earth science. Middle schools and junior high schools also changed their approach, teaching more general science classes with a larger amount of science content.
"That had an impact on our students as far as the content knowledge required," Wavering said. "They could no longer concentrate on one discipline such as chemistry or physics. Now they have to pick up content from other areas in the sciences, and we make sure they know what courses they will need to take so that they will be successful when they take the Praxis II exams required for licensure in science."
In addition to the M.A.T. in Secondary Education, the program offers a Master of Education in Secondary Education and a Doctor of Philosophy in Curriculum and Instruction.
Parks Family Professorship
Assistance for Wavering came three years ago in the form of William McComas, fresh from a professorship at the University of Southern California. McComas has made a name for himself internationally as a foremost expert on the nature of science, what he calls "a rich description of science; how it works, how scientists operate as a social group and how society itself both directs and reacts to scientific endeavors."
He edited and wrote several chapters in The Nature of Science in Science Education: Rationales and Strategies, published in 1998, and has also written texts on evolutionary environmental biology.
McComas received the Parks Family Professorship in Science Education established in 2008 by Peggy Parks with her late husband, Donald, and other family members.
"One reason I came to the University of Arkansas was the evidence I saw of strong institutional support for the program from the college, the department and the university," McComas said. "Creating an endowed position with the generous support of the Parks family of Prairie Grove said that the University of Arkansas values science education."
The endowment has allowed McComas to support students in several ways such as paying for data acquisition for a doctoral dissertation and to serve Arkansas by co-sponsoring a statewide science summit with the college's department of education reform.
The part of the science education program that McComas has recently added to the mix in the curriculum and instruction department focuses on two goals: graduate-level teacher enhancement and professorial preparation, explained McComas.
"We want students who come to the program to leave more energized, knowledgeable and skilled in the teaching of science," he said. "For others, it will open the door to a new profession as a professor of science education. Our graduates are qualified to go off to other colleges and universities and do the same work we as science education faculty do: educating teachers, developing programs and mentoring graduate students."
Amy Ricketts is one of those students. She spent 13 years in a California classroom teaching science to students in kindergarten through eighth grade, during which time she earned a master's degree at USC with McComas as her primary professor. She decided to enter a doctoral program because she wants to teach on a university level now.
"Before I started teaching I planned not to be a teacher forever," Ricketts said. "I wanted to be able to speak with authority about what it means to be a teacher and about how children learn, but I knew I wanted to move into an area where I could directly impact the classroom but not as a teacher."
At Home and Abroad
Students have come to the program from both near and far. Kim Murie, a graduate of the M.A.T. program, teaches biology at Fayetteville High School, and Peggy Ward has 18 years of public school science teaching experience.
Feng Jiang previously taught high school physics in China. Adnan Al-Rubaye enrolled in the Master of Education program in curriculum and instruction while getting his doctorate in biology. Virginia Rhame is working on a Master of Education degree and teaches the introductory education course. Jennifer Purcell-Coleman holds an agricultural education degree and is interested in teaching science to children with special needs.
A visiting professor joined the group from Thailand this year. Pongprapan Pongsophon holds a Ph.D. from Kasetsart University in Bangkok, where he is a lecturer. He heard McComas speak at an international conference in Singapore about the nature of science several years back, so when his dean offered him the chance to spend a year at any institution of higher education in the United States, he contacted McComas.
"The idea is that I would go abroad to gain new experiences," Pongosphon said. "I will return in May, and then another person will go to Canada. In the third year, one of our staff will go to New Zealand.
"I had my choice of any university," he continued. "The nature of science is an area I am so interested in, and I was impressed and inspired by Dr. McComas."
Jiang also is interested in the nature of science, which was the subject of his master's thesis in China. He had read McComas' work and left Indiana University to enroll at the University of Arkansas. The program in Fayetteville was able to offer him funding for only one semester, and he took a chance that something would happen so that he could stay. It did when another student finished the program early.
Science Misconception Access Project
McComas and Jiang worked together on the Science Misconception Access Project, online at http://scimap.net/, after Jiang demonstrated his considerable skill with computers.
Scimap.net offers a sample repository of misconceptions students hold about concepts in science. Even though this site references only a fraction of the thousands of misconception studies, it serves as a sample of the kind of tool that McComas plans to develop with additional funding for the project.
"It's a teaching tool for teachers," explained Jiang. "They can search Newton's Law because they are going to teach the concept the next week and look up the misconceptions their students may have about the concept."
While teaching physics in a suburban high school in China for nine years, Jiang encountered first-hand misconceptions about science. He was tutoring a student one-on-one and asked her whether she thought physics was about the real world or an imaginary world. She responded that she thought it was imaginary, an answer that shocked Jiang but when he asked the same question of whole class, about half also said imaginary.
In China, a new curriculum movement to include the nature of science is taking place, Jiang said. He would like to take a postdoctoral position in the United States to gain more research experience at different institutions. When he returns to China, he is interested in working with teachers in high schools to improve their teaching.
Thailand is experiencing a shortage of faculty nationwide, and Pongsophon had some teaching experience as part of a bachelor's degree program in biology. He received a scholarship from the Institute for the Promotion of Teaching Science and Technology to pursue a doctorate in science education at Kasetsart University. He taught high school biology in the Kasetsart Demonstration School for a year, and after earning the degree took a position as a lecturer at the same university. He has taught many courses in the past five years, including teaching a secondary-level science methods course.
Pongsophon considers his year in Fayetteville both a professional development and a postdoctoral experience. With McComas' help, he redefined his current research project so that it would be more likely to provide information new to the field. Pongsophon presented his research at a meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching in Orlando, Fla., earlier this month.
"The response was good," he said.
He also gave a presentation at the annual conference of the Association for Science Teacher Education in January.
He has gained new content knowledge as well, he said, and has decided to enroll in an online master's program in science education when he returns to his home.
"My decision is influenced by what I see here at the University of Arkansas," Pongosphon said. "I come from a small world, and the faculty and students here have opened up my eyes. I realize there are so many things I should know that I don't.
"I think I can't be anywhere else but my home country," he continued. "Students are waiting on me to come back and use the knowledge and experience I gained here, especially about the nature of science."
Pongsophon also hopes to influence changes in Thailand's national education standards concerning science. Particularly in the learning strand for the nature of science, the standard needs to be more consistent with those in other countries, he said.
"Pǔn will be a leader in science education in Thailand," McComas said.
The other person in the three-member science education complement is Cathy Wissehr, who joined the faculty in January 2009.
Wissehr teaches science methods courses in the childhood education program as well as an integrated math and science concepts course for graduate students. She helps advise childhood education majors with an interest in science, and last semester Wissehr mentored a student in the Honors College whose thesis looked at girls' attitudes toward physical science compared to the attitudes of boys. Wissehr was awarded an Honors College mentoring stipend for her work. Although the student had not yet taken Wissehr's science methods course, she designed a fourth-grade unit that used a roller coaster to demonstrate the concepts of force and motion.
Wissehr's expertise may serve to open up possibilities to elementary-level educators they had not previously considered.
"My whole experience has been in elementary and middle school science, and it's unusual for people in elementary education to seek a Ph.D. in science education," she said. "Very few elementary educators go on to a doctoral program in science education because they are not content specialists."
Wissehr is particularly interested in science learning in informal environments and environmental education. She is involved with several area schools that are considering building outdoor classrooms or training their teachers to use one. Wissehr is helping to develop the curriculum for the outdoor setting. She is on the board of the Ozark Natural Science Center and has conducted research there with summer campers, examining the children's knowledge of native Arkansas wildlife. Previous research has shown that children are better at identifying exotic wildlife than the animals likely to be found in the area where they live.
Wissehr's students prepare to launch a tissue-
paper hot air balloon on the lawn of Old Main
Wissehr and McComas also serve on the board of the Arkansas STEM Coalition, and Wissehr is developing a student chapter of the National Science Teachers Association on campus.
Wissehr also serves on the board of directors for the Arkansas Environmental Education Association and on the Committee for Preservice Teacher Education for the National Science Teachers Association and is helping to write the Arkansas Environmental Literacy Action Plan.
Not all of the graduate students in the science education program come from the classroom. Lisa Wood entered the doctoral program after 22 years as a consulting soil scientist on the East Coast. She worked primarily with land developers to evaluate the soil and other environmental concerns potentially affecting development before investing in the property as well as helping them meet all the requirements of the environmental permitting process.
She grew up in Cincinnati but left Ohio to attend the University of Arkansas for her bachelor's and master's degrees. She made the decision based partly on the quality of the program, but she also knew once she had seen Fayetteville that she wanted to live here and eventually would return.
"My interest is in informal education, those learning opportunities we all get through places such as nature centers, zoos, museums, and the Ozark Natural Science Center," Wood explained. "People really are looking to soak up knowledge in informal settings, and I think they are more apt to go to the center or to the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks if there is an organized, hands-on program of learning available. Offering an informal, yet organized, educational program helps people learn more than they can on their own. People are yearning for learning opportunities. They want the experience first-hand but they also want somebody to guide them."
Wood said the science education graduate students have formed bonds.
"We immediately meshed as a group," she said. "We have taken many of the same classes and follow each other around and help each other. I didn't expect that when I started the program, and I didn't experience it 25 years ago when I was here as a student."
Most of the other students have been teachers in a formal classroom, Wood said, so she offers a different perspective. She is finishing her first year in the program and has not chosen a dissertation topic, although she is interested in research about environmental literacy and sustainability.
"I am also interested in science literacy, preparing students to be better-informed adults in a scientific world so that they can evaluate a drug they see on television or decide whether a piece of research is valid," she said.
Building on Success
A healthy graduate education program should have four to five doctoral students and a number of master's students at any one time, according to McComas. There isn't a standard template for recruiting graduate students, he said, but attendance at conferences is important to build the program's name.
"When seven people from the same program show up at a conference, folks take notice," he said. "We also make sure we are present in other ways, such as faculty publishing articles. We are taking part in several STEM initiatives in the state. We would like to have as much impact in the state as outside it."
Historically, there has been a shortage of science teachers, particularly in the physical sciences, Wavering said, although the demand created in recent decades by the Northwest Arkansas boom in population has subsided. Some of the science education students teach units about careers in the sciences while doing their internships, he said.
He oversees practicum experiences of students before they enter the M.A.T. as well as the comprehensive exams of all science education majors in the M.A.T. program, which includes an action research project. Until recently Wavering coordinated the internship placement for all M.A.T. students. Nick Tschepikow, former principal of Ramay Junior High School in Fayetteville, has taken on that responsibility.
Wavering has served as co-principal investigator for the past three years on the National Science Foundation Robert Noyce Scholarship Program for Secondary Education Science and Mathematics Teachers. Gay Stewart, associate professor of physics in the Fulbright College, is the principal investigator. M.A.T. students licensing in mathematics and science receive support through the Noyce program and agree to teach in a high-needs school.
The three faculty members share the workload of chairing dissertation committees and serving on dissertation and theses committees.
"A graduate student who needs a mentor now has three faculty members with unique interests and expertise to choose from," McComas said."We want to continue to be a local resource, and one of our goals is that more people in the region realize the value of a graduate degree. This university is far, far better than many people both inside and outside the state recognize, but it takes a while for reputations to catch up with reality."
In February, the university announced that it has been elevated to the highest possible classification by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching during its recent reclassification of the nation’s 4,633 universities and colleges. The University of Arkansas is one of just 108 schools with this distinction. The classifications are based on a range of quantitative data related to the number and nature of doctoral degrees awarded annually, the amount of research grants and activity occurring, and other measures of scholarly productivity.
"Rankings and ratings are important, but graduate students need to look at the quality of a particular program and those involved in it," McComas said. "Interpersonal relationships are very important in a graduate program. Fifty percent of the value in a good doctoral program takes place at lunch, during hallway conversations and in shared work on projects. Students who limit themselves to the access they get in the classroom are not getting all they can from the doctoral experience.
"You could say being a graduate faculty advisor is very similar to being a parent but somewhat more satisfying because my graduate students actually listen to me."