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The Science Specialist

Teaching science isn’t easy. MU’s Deborah Hanuscin can help.

By Anita Neal Harrison

Growing up, Deborah Hanuscin always excelled in the classroom. And like a lot of kids who find school easy, she remembers feeling frustrated when her peers didn’t get the material. But it wasn’t because she dismissed those students as too dumb to learn. Hanuscin was frustrated because she wanted to give her teachers tips.

“I remember — vividly — sitting in my third grade classroom, watching kids struggle and thinking, “If she would just explain it this way, they might get it,’ ” Hanuscin says.

What might have seemed like impertinence in an 8-year-old today endears Hanuscin to educators who benefit from the professional development programs that she designs. One of those programs, Quality Elementary Science Teaching, QuEST, will over the next four years receive $2.6 million from the National Science Foundation to study a model of professional development that gives teachers the chance to develop new science skills and then immediately practice implementing them.

“When undergraduates learn to become teachers, they do student teaching to practice,” explains Hanuscin, an associate professor with a joint appointment in the MU College of Education and College of Arts and Science, “but when we do workshops for teachers, they wait months to return to their classrooms to try their new skills. What we’re doing is taking the workshop and embedding a teaching experience in it so teachers can immediately practice what they’re learning with students to figure out, “How does this work?’ ”

Hanuscin knows how hard it can be for teachers to figure that question out on their own because she began her career 20 years ago as an elementary teacher. Like many elementary teachers, Hanuscin felt least confident about her ability to teach science. So how, of all things, did she end up teaching teachers to teach science?

The answer, fittingly, is because of a teacher. Betsy Brown was a second grade teacher assigned to mentor Hanuscin at the start of her career. Brown loved teaching science, and, working with her, Hanuscin began to see that classroom science could be much more than memorizing facts. Brown’s students explored materials via hands-on experiences, developed and conducted their own experiments, raised questions and shared ideas. Ultimately they emerged with a solid understanding of scientific concepts.

For her part, Hanuscin came away realizing that not only could she love science but also that she wanted to do for other teachers what Brown had done for her. She earned her master’s in science and environmental education and then her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Indiana University in Bloomington.

The same year she earned her doctorate, 2004, Hanuscin came to MU where, along with teaching education courses she also teaches physics. It makes sense, she says, that if she’s going to teach people how to teach science, she teach science herself. She’s clearly doing something right, earning numerous MU teaching awards, including a 2012 Gold Chalk Award and a 2011 William T. Kemper Fellowship for Teaching Excellence. Hanuscin was also named the 2014 Outstanding Science Teacher Educator of the Year by the Association for Science Teacher Education.

Hanuscin’s physics courses are intended for education majors, and she designs the classes to model the teaching strategies she wants her students to learn. Instead of lecturing, she gives students tasks to complete, provides directions, poses questions and encourages students to compare notes and data among themselves as they develop explanations for their observations.

The instruction teachers receive in the QuEST program follows a very similar format. The program last two weeks. In the first week, teachers are learners, developing science skills by working on the same projects their students will face, as well as learning pedagogical skills. The second week returns teachers to the role of instructor via a “controlled teaching experience:” in this case a student science camp where teachers work collaboratively to implement their new teaching strategies, examine the strategies’ impacts on student learning, and then make adjustments to their instruction.

Hanuscin developed the QuEST model with Delinda van Garderen, associate professor of special education at MU, and began implementing it in 2009 with a grant from the Missouri Department of Higher Education. That grant only funded the project itself, whereas the new National Science Foundation support includes funding to research the effectiveness of the QuEST model.

Program evaluations have shown teachers learn in the QuEST program, but Hanuscin is excited to see exactly what they learn and how their learning affects student outcomes back in their classrooms.

“It goes back to that itch I had in third grade: “Just do this, and the kids will get it,’” she says. “But now I realize it’s not what we explain to them, but what we help them explain for themselves that matters.”

Alligator.

Teachers’ Teacher
Deborah Hanuscin uses hands-on training and classroom simulations to help teachers help students learn science. Photo by Nicolas Benner.

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