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Spring 2009

The science of teaching

One short year. One long to-do list.

Dr. William J. Gerace, who is the Helena Gabriel Houston Distinguished Professor for Science Education, is hoping to improve the numbers of teachers and the quality of education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-related fields. No small feat.

“STEM has become quite the rage,” he says. “The country as a whole is realizing the deficiency in this area. The need is severe. And it's going to get worse for a while because there's almost nobody in the pipeline.”

Gerace, a faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, previously spent 17 years leading the Scientific Reasoning Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has published extensively on nuclear physics and education issues, particularly teaching, learning and problem solving.

The issues surrounding STEM teachers hit on several levels, he says. As college students prepare to become teachers, they learn their content area from one area (e.g., math) and their teaching style from another (education). Frequently, students have a hard time making those two things marry.

Once they become secondary education teachers, the professional development isn't always helpful. Those who are excited about learning more go off-site. When they return to their schools all fired up about new ideas, they generally find little support.

Probably most alarming of all is the number of teachers who burn out and simply walk away.

“They work very hard and feel harassed and stressed all the time,” Gerace says. “It's a major policy problem.”

One of Gerace's major tasks is helping to plan for an Institute for the Advancement of Learning in Mathematics and Science, which UNCG is pursuing in collaboration with several other colleges and universities in the Triad. “I appreciate that it has a research component, a curriculum component, a professional development component and a policy component.”

Other areas Gerace expects to tackle include:

To help in the effort, two of his fellow researchers from the Scientific Reasoning Research Institute are coming to UNCG as well. Dr. Ian Beatty joined Gerace in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in January and Dr. William Leonard will arrive in August.

The staggered arrivals relate to a five-year research project the group is finishing in Massachusetts. Data analysis will be completed at UNCG during this next year.

Gerace earned his bachelor's in physics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1963 and his doctorate in physics from Princeton in 1967. His research interests include theoretical nuclear physics, problem solving, cognitive processes in math and science education, and professional development for teachers. In the course of his career, he has served as principal investigator or co-PI on research projects that have received about $8 million in grant support.

“Science education, it really interests me. The harder thing is not what's ‘out there’ but what's in your head.”



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