Learning to teach the natural sciences

How can future teachers learn to teach the natural sciences, with a science centre as a tool? That is one of the questions that doctoral student Alexina Thorén Williams poses in her thesis project.
“I’m hoping that my research can help improve teacher education in the natural sciences.”

We meet Alexina Thorén Williams at her old workplace and new study site, Universeum science centre in Gothenburg. She has been a doctoral student at the Centre for Education Science and Teacher Research (CUL) at the University of Gothenburg since 2015, and she is studying how future teachers plan and conduct teaching with invited school classes at Universeum.

“I want to find out how they address and discuss natural sciences topics in a group and the consequences for their teaching. It’s incredibly instructive for them to operate in a new environment in which they themselves have not chosen the topic and where they do not know the students.”

Alexina had worked as a compulsory school teacher for many years when she applied and was accepted for the post as a teacher at Universeum in 2011. Initially, the work primarily involved receiving school classes and teachers within the framework of Universeum’s own further education training activities, but the scope was soon altered to also include student teachers from the University of Gothenburg.

“It was exciting to see how student teachers addressed the topics in the environments, but it also gave rise to many questions. Why do they conduct themselves in this particular way and how do they handle the subject when it is difficult?”

Curiosity and the fact that almost all the research available at the science centre is about how students and the public learn led Alexina to see an opportunity to further examine the learning process among student teachers. Now she is halfway through her doctoral studies and is about to submit her first scholarly article.

“It’s said that writing the first article is like being pregnant with an elephant baby. It feels like it takes forever before it is finished,” she says with a smile.

Alexina has focused on groups of student teachers who are studying the natural sciences and teaching science together. Among other things, she is examining the manner in which collective learning occurs. This is also affected by the type of student teachers making up the group. Several different groups of student teachers, with different backgrounds and prior knowledge, come to Universeum. Two groups are engaged in the primary school teacher programme for years preschool-3 or 4-9 and the natural sciences make up a relatively small part of their education. A third group is enrolled in a bridging programme for those who already have a degree and are going to become lower-secondary or upper-secondary school teachers. The fact that some students have barely approached the natural sciences before while others have received doctoral degrees in a natural sciences subject has a major impact on how they approach the assignment. But that does not mean that the group with a scientific background has an easier task, Alexina points out.

“Each part involves many things that are challenging for students, which requires knowledge of subject matter as well as pedagogic and subject-specific knowledge. It is incredibly instructive to teach in a new environment where the teachers have not chosen the topic, do not know the students and also have other visitors to consider.”

In addition to her doctoral studies, Alexina is the coordinator for the course on Sustainable Development Centred on People. About 300 subject teacher students take this course each year, where they learn about the UN’s global Sustainable Development Goals, 2030 Agenda and educational perspectives and tools for teaching in schools.

“Interest has increased since the course was introduced in 2014, which certainly can be linked to the challenges we face, including the threat from climate change, excessive consumption and increased segregation and social divisions in society. How do you handle this as future teachers? You must be aware that you have a responsibility and be able to link it to the subjects you teach.”

The challenges for tomorrow’s teachers are great, especially in the natural sciences. How does one capture interest and maintain it? The number of students in Sweden who study the natural sciences at the university level has steadily declined in recent decades, while there is a great need for trained scientists in society. The key is inspirational teachers, Alexina believes.

“As teachers of student teachers, it is important to see how we can support future teachers and what support we can give them so that they can teach and inspire. Because no one ever forgets a really good teacher.”

“What is my favourite element? Oh, there are so many… It would have to be the life-giving oxygen,” says Alexina Thorén Williams.

Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning

Obtaining a quality education is the foundation to improving people’s lives and sustainable development. Major progress has been made towards increasing access to education at all levels and increasing enrolment rates in schools particularly for women and girls. Basic literacy skills have improved tremendously, yet bolder efforts are needed to make even greater strides for achieving universal education goals. For example, the world has achieved equality in primary education between girls and boys, but few countries have achieved that target at all levels of education.

On 25 September 2015, UN member countries adopted Agenda 2030, a universal agenda that encompasses the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The global goals and Agenda 2030 are the most ambitious agreement for sustainable development that world leaders have ever adopted. The SDGs consist of 17 goals, and in this issue we have chosen to focus on three of them and our research and education connected with them.