Robert Cox / Biology

While advising Biology majors at UVA, I’ve come to realize that relatively few students have seriously considered career paths outside of medical and dental school, veterinary school, clinical research, and graduate school. When I ask students whether they have thought about secondary science education as a career choice, I find that many view this option as falling outside of their major training, in the domain of education majors. Others worry that teaching science at the secondary (6-12) grade levels will be personally or professionally unfulfilling, an arduous job in which an advanced degree in science will be underappreciated and underutilized in a culture of teaching to prescribed guidelines and standardized testing. At the same time, as a result of my own lab’s ongoing efforts to link our science to teachers and students at the 6-12 grade levels, I’ve found many science teachers are eager to improve their content knowledge in evolutionary biology (our area of focus), to participate in authentic scientific research, and to push their classrooms toward exciting, hands-on experiences that recreate the active process of “doing science”. For my Mead Dream Idea, I propose to blend these perspectives into a new program that serves a hybrid role for UVA students, acting first as a forum for lively discussion of the evolving relationship between “university science” and “secondary science education”, and second as a source of guidance, inspiration, advice, and career options for science majors who may be considering a career in secondary science education. 

First, I’ll provide some context. With current funding from the National Science Foundation, my lab runs a professional development program for grade 6-12 science teachers called Evolution Education( Our program is founded on the principle that students learn science best by doing actual science, and that teachers become more effective educators when they participate as scientists in original biological research. We address these principles by training teachers as scientists and providing the resources and expertise for their students to conduct authentic research in their grade 6-12 classrooms. We run an annual Teacher Workshop at UVA’s Mountain Lake Biological Station (MLBS) where local science teachers can improve their content knowledge in evolutionary biology and explore creative ways to bring real data and experiments into the classroom. We also award two Teacher Fellowships per year to outstanding science teachers from around the country who participate fully in our field research in coastal Florida, then develop innovative experiments to be conducted (and published!) by their high school classrooms. Through this program, we are building a growing network of local and national science teachers and educational groups, including collaborators in UVA’s Curry School of Education, the Virginia Board of Education, and the Golden Apple Foundation.

My proposed Mead Dream Idea will build a new layer into this existing framework by involving UVA students in two ways:

First, I will host a science education salon series (8 total gatherings) for science majors who may be considering (or perhaps those who have never previously considered) a career in science education. These gatherings will leverage our Evolution Education network of local science teachers and educational groups to provide concrete examples, first-hand advice, and innovative approaches to careers in secondary science education. The theme that will tie the series together is the idea that UVA science majors, particularly those with firsthand experience conducting research, are uniquely suited to positively impact secondary science education, and to do so in ways that are both personally fulfilling and professionally rewarding. These gatherings will take place monthly on Wednesday evenings, with light refreshments served to encourage participation by all interested students. As examples, I have outlined several of the planned topics for the series:

Teaching Science as Fact versus Process – We will begin with a discussion of science pedagogy, focusing first on students’ own experiences learning science to draw them actively into the conversation. What are the pros and cons of teaching science as a set of facts, or even a set of theories and hypotheses, versus teaching science as an active process of discovery? Can each of these methods work at both the secondary and the university level?

Real Science in the Classroom – We will highlight unique projects in which our Evolution Educationmembers have conducted novel science experiments as part of their high school curricula – in some cases even leading to publication in peer-reviewed journals! Real science can happen in the high school classroom, and UVA science majors are uniquely suited to raise the bar for science education and make new discoveries with students. Moreover, the skills of a thoughtful scientist are valued and rewarded by educational employers in many school districts.

Experiential Learning – We will highlight unique “semester abroad” and “experiential learning” schools where our graduate students and I have conducted research or worked as teachers (e.g., The Island School in The Bahamas, Coastal Studies for Girls in Maine). These high schools are always on the lookout to hire recent college graduates with a talent for science and education, and they offer incredible opportunities to see the world and gain meaningful post-graduate experiences in unique environments while teaching in new and creative ways.

Careers in Science Education – We will assemble an interactive panel of past and present secondary science teachers and education professionals to address students’ questions about the challenges of science education, how to acquire certification, and how to merge an interest in science with a career in education. These panels will draw on our network of local science teachers and the experiences of Biology graduate students who have taught at the K-12 levels.

Second, at the end of the fall semester, I will invite four students with particularly strong interests in both scientific research and education to participate as Undergraduate Fellows during the spring and summer. During the spring semester, these students will interact with our Teacher Fellows and their classrooms via Skype to gain firsthand experience with actual classrooms, while also conducting self-designed independent research projects in my lab (and sharing these projects with participating high school classrooms). In effect, our Teacher Fellows will act as mentors and professional role models for the Undergraduate Fellows. During the summer, these students will attend our Teacher Workshop at MLBS, where they will interact with local science teachers, learn and demonstrate a variety of teaching strategies focused on bringing real data and scientific tools into the K-12 classroom, and collaborate with our Teacher Fellows to design new experiments to be conducted in their classrooms. Finally, the Undergraduate Fellows will travel with our lab and our Teacher Fellows to conduct their own field projects in evolutionary biology during our annual lab field trip to Florida. As a particular point of emphasis, they will consider how their own research can be effectively communicated to K-12 students in a manner consistent with teaching to the national Next Generation Science Standards for education.

Holistically, I hope to use this opportunity to create a new program that will continue in future years and become fully integrated into the fabric of our Evolution Education science outreach. I have outlined a formal series of activities and events, but what I really hope to create is a new dialogue about the relationship between science and science education, along with an exploration of the ways in which students with a bachelor’s degree in science can pursue jobs and careers in science education while simultaneously improving the way in which science is taught.

Proposed Budget:

Feast snacks and beverages serving 15-20 students: $8 events x $200: $1,600

Undergraduate Fellows lodging at MLBS: $12/night x 6 nights = $72 per student x 4 students: $288

Undergraduate Fellows meals at MLBS: $30 x 6 days = $180 per student x 4 students: $720

Travel to Florida for Undergraduate Fellows (by car with lab personnel)* $250

TOTAL $2,850

*  Food and housing costs for students in Florida will be covered by a grant from the National Science Foundation)