'Giving our next generation of science educators a chance to kick around their ideas'

By

Erik Ketcherside

Associate Professor J. Bryan Henderson

The 2020–21 academic year is J. Bryan Henderson’s seventh year on the faculty of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, and the seventh year of a collaborative program he organizes on ASU’s Tempe campus: InSciEdOut.

An associate professor specializing in science education, Henderson organizes this series of six-to-eight meetings throughout the year for faculty members, staff, and graduate and undergraduate students working on, or simply interested in, science education research. What kind of science doesn’t matter. (Besides his PhD in science education, Henderson has degrees in physics, astronomy, and philosophy with a minor in applied mathematics.) He says the list of subscribers to the InSciEdOut listserv — about 75, at the end of last year — includes “... people from around campus, largely in the different sciences, who also happen to have an interest in education. So people in physics, people in the school of life sciences, in engineering, chemistry and geology; people at all different levels of their careers: tenured professors, postdocs, other grad students. And we have people who are science educators in the Phoenix community.”

Henderson says InSciEdOut provides  “... a space where we can present science education research ideas. A presenter can propose methods for a project, preliminary analysis of data, etcetera, and get feedback before they move on to subsequent steps in their research.” One word that comes up frequently as Henderson describes the program is “interdisciplinary.” “An interdisciplinary approach is in the spirit of ASU,” he says. “This provides ASU students and scholars a valuable opportunity to receive support and feedback on their research from scholars across different fields, all in the same room.”

Taking that sharing space virtual 

Of course, the new season of InSciEdOut poses complications for same-room meetings, which have for years included not only close interaction, but also a meal. With COVID-19 restrictions making that impossible, Henderson says the meetings will be virtual this year, but he’s still springing for lunch. “People who RSVP get credits with Grubhub toward a meal delivered to them where they are,” he says.

InSciEdOut was evolving in other ways before the pandemic, Henderson says. Since four years ago, graduate students can get credit for attending and participating. “I think the graduate students have been one of the biggest parts of the community,” Henderson says. “The reason I call it InSciEdOut is that it's brainstorming; taking ideas you've been kicking around and getting them out to other people. And in this case, getting them out to people across campus as opposed to just people you're working most immediately with. So this is a chance for the grad students who are thinking of ideas for their dissertations, for example, to share what they've been thinking, the preliminary data they have.

“It’s a rare opportunity for them to be able to get that feedback from a multidisciplinary audience of people who are at various stages in their careers, as well,” he says. “I know when I was a graduate student, some my first presentations and getting questioned by an audience at conferences was a trial by fire. So this is a lower-stakes way of working into that. I wish I’d had more opportunities like that.”

InSciEdOut provides other kinds of presentations and opportunities for participants, Henderson says. “We’ve had some special sessions that are more like workshops. In [ASU’s] physics department, for instance, there's this really strong modeling physics curriculum, and for one of our meetings we went to the physics department and went through one of those training workshops.”

Henderson admits, “I could divert more of our funds to inviting more accomplished speakers and then we would probably get more faculty turning out. But it's not like we’re trying to invite fancy-pants speakers as much as we're giving our next generation of science educators a chance to kick around their ideas and get feedback.”

Getting that chance is appreciated by the graduate student participants, whose responses are solicited at the end of each year. A science education student at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College wrote that the program instilled “... confidence to try different research approaches, and connections and mentorship from scholars outside my usual circle.” And a biology education student in the School of Life Sciences said, “I would not have otherwise had the opportunity to receive feedback from and collaborate with such a diversity of individuals working in science education!”

Examining the new normal 

Because science education is always the focus, no matter who is presenting, InSciEdOut for  2020–21 will certainly require discussions of how the pandemic has affected and altered science classrooms and curriculums.

Henderson says he’s currently involved in one such study, “There's been a lot of lip service paid to using educational technology over the years, to mixed results,” he says. “It tends to be district-wide or sometimes school-wide, or sometimes a few enterprising teachers at a school that take on modern educational technologies. But we're in a unique time in which they really don't have much of a choice. So a PhD student I advise, April Holton, is leading a study surveying teachers who had to go virtual because of the pandemic.

Henderson says the study will continue following those teachers “... when things get back to normal, to see if some of the digital tools they've been using during the pandemic and some of the ways in which they've been teaching with those digital tools might associate with possible modifications in the way they teach when they return to the classroom; do they incorporate some of these tools long after the pandemic is over? They've had to become facile with these technologies. So I can't help but think that the more accustomed they become to these technologies, the more it might spill back into the classroom when the pandemic is over.”

For now, InSciEdOut will call upon some of that same technology for its 2020–21 series, and Henderson invites anyone interested in getting on the email list to get in touch. He promises that, whether the sessions are virtual or live, “Really cool things happen when you bring together people that come from different disciplines.”

For information on InSciEdOut, contact Bryan Henderson.

InSciEdOut is funded with a Learning Community grant from Mary Lou Fulton Teachers college.