21 My Research Was Born from What I Did Not Know | Michele Koomen

My professional activities have evolved over my years at Gustavus, shifting from a focus on practitioner-related activities to research-related activities, along the way developing greater collaboration with two specific organizations: Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center and Sci/MathMN Teacher Research Network (TRN).

As part of my contribution to mathematics and science education, I presented over the early years of my appointment at Gustavus a number of workshop sessions at national meetings that were aligned with the national reform documents in science (Science for all Americans, AAAS, 1989, 1999 and the National Science Education Standards, National Research Council, 1996, NSTA, 1992) and mathematics (National Council of Teachers of Math Standards, 1989, 2000). In these presentations sought to provide practicing teachers with multiple strategies for teaching mathematics strands with understanding and intelligent practices. Science presentations focused on the thinking, process and analysis that are part of inquiry based teaching and learning. As in all scholarly work, each presentation or session is subject to peer review. Workshops at the national meetings are highly prized because of the competitive scrutiny and review of each proposal.

  • In 2004, I presented a workshop titled Helping Children to Master Basic Facts at the National Meeting in Philadelphia of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). The purpose of this workshop was to bring aspects of mathematics research in learning basic facts to practicing teachers at the elementary level.
  • At the Minnesota Science Teachers meeting (2001), the regional meeting of Science Teachers in Minneapolis (2003) and the national meeting of Science Teachers in San Diego, California (2002), teacher participants left the workshops with specific ideas about how to plan and teach simple chemistry concepts using inquiry methods in their classroom.

As my scholarly focus changed to research in inclusion, diversity and social justice/equity in science and mathematics, my presentations and workshops have also changed. The Minnesota Science Teachers Association meeting in October 2005 was my first presentation of research findings and literature that support learning in science and mathematics for students who are mainstreamed in said classrooms with a workshop entitled: Meeting the Needs of the Diverse Life Science Student in Middle Schools. Attendees left this workshop with a number of methods to support learning in science including various mechanisms that promote science vocabulary, a common challenge for students with diverse learning needs.

The Teacher Research Network (TRN), with funding provided by the Minnesota Department of Education has been a significant part of my collaborative research and scholarship since I joined the faculty at Gustavus in 2000. The Teacher Research Network (TRN) was formed in 1998 by a group of five higher education institutions (Minnesota State University, Moorhead, St. Cloud State University, and the University of Minnesota at Duluth, Gustavus Adolphus College and St. Mary’s University of Minnesota) that collectively prepared over half of all K-12 teachers in TRN the state. Currently institutions of higher education include: Minnesota State Universities at Moorhead, Winona and State Cloud, the University of St. Thomas, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Olaf College, the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and the College of St. Scholastica.

Beginning in 1999 (before I joined Gustavus), and culminating in 2004, we conducted a longitudinal study of beginning science and mathematics teachers in Minnesota during the first three years of their teaching. Sixty-four new teachers participated in this study involving, ultimately, eleven institutions of teacher education in Minnesota. The study focused on five aspects of new teachers: knowing mathematics and science, knowing pedagogy, knowing students as learners, establishing a learning environment and developing as a teacher. Analysis of the data revealed several prominent themes: new teachers need a strong content background to teach math and science; new teachers perceive that there are constraints in the learning environment; new teachers perceive that there are few mentoring opportunities available to them and new teachers perceive that there are limited professional development opportunities available to them. .

I led the effort to develop a partnership with Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center (WRELC, Ely, MN) and Gustavus Adolphus College where we act as partners in preparing student teachers in 2003. Teacher candidates have the option of completing one of their student teaching sessions at Wolf Ridge Environmental Center. Eligible teacher candidates apply for a year long naturalist/student teaching in training program at WRELC in the fall of the year before they student teach. Students complete their first session of student teaching at WRELC from August to October of their student teacher semester. Supervision of their teaching involves a cooperating teacher at WRELC working in partnership with a supervisor from GAC, me. The opportunity to student teach at WRELC creates a platform to hone outdoor and environmental education teaching in a pristine natural environment with highly supportive faculty (GAC and WRELC). In addition, this program positions our teacher candidates to develop background in an area that is increasingly valued in local schools: environmental and sustainability teaching and learning. In the world of environmental and outdoor education, Gustavus is the first institution to couple student teaching experiences with naturalist training. As a matter of fact, Wolf Ridge and Gustavus were invited to share their collaborative efforts in student teaching publicly in October 2006 at the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAEEE) meeting in St Paul.

My research interests do not stand alone or apart from the work that I do at Gustavus Adolphus College in preparing teachers, indeed they are integral to everything that I do. I began my doctoral studies at the University of Minnesota with no clear idea for a research direction. My path for research became clear to me as a result of a supervision incident.

In the fall of 2001, I was supervising a number of student teachers across the metro area of Minneapolis, including one student who was placed in fifth grade at a private school in Minneapolis. Sarah, (a pseudonym), had been a methods student (EDU 371, 373 & 385) of mine in the spring of 2001. Part of Sarah’s lesson involved partnered activities at stations, where students would read a set of instructions and perform a simple investigation together, nothing real unusual for fifth grade. The teaching and delivery of the lesson was fine until I noticed Chad. Chad was not engaged in the lesson or with his partner at all. As a matter of fact, he was basically distracted by some of the other materials that were in the classroom and was busy using the class time to explore these items. After Sarah completed her teaching, I turned our debriefing conversation to discussing certain students and their engagement in the lesson, including Chad. Sarah’s response was, well “that’s Chad.” Her dismissive attitude about Chad revealed to me that she had no real expectations for his learning. It also pointed out to me that I really knew nothing about how she might go about supporting his learning. My research was born from what I did not know.

My dissertation reported on a phenomenological study of nine regular and special education students as they studied insect biology and ecology in their inclusive seventh grade life science class. Three fundamental data collection methods of interpretive research (student observations, interviews and artifact analysis) framed the data collection of this study. The essence of the lived experience of the study participants reveal a variety of ways working with others in groups supported their learning. Students reported that it was easier to share ideas, ask questions and complete their work when they worked together with other classmates. A second finding of this study, It’s kind of hard in learning science, exposes some of the anxiety and the challenges that are part of the experiences of both regular and special education students in learning science. A third finding reveals that for the students in this study the practice of inquiry learning in science is fragile. Despite daily opportunities in inquiry activities, many students are fixated in finding the “right” answers and just getting their “work done.” The perception of practicing science for the special education students was moderated and limited by their viewpoint that science is coupled with language arts. This research has implications for science and special teacher educators.

Broadening my research into other areas of inclusion and special learners. Over touring break in 2007, I took part in the Latino Academy with seven other faculty from the Department of Education at GAC. As a department we sought to understand the implications of U.S.-Mexico border policy, economics, and social structures for immigrants and their families in order to better serve our education students. Minnesota increasingly is home to many Latino immigrant families. Part of our experience was to travel to El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico where we spent several days visiting with new immigrants and residents from the area as well as personnel from numerous social service agencies who worked to provide the services for the immigrants, including Cristo Rey Church, our host organization. During the Latino Academy, I had many conversations with the Pastor of Cristo Rey Church, Pastor Rose Mary Sánchez-Guzmán, regarding the importance of building an understanding of the immigrant story with teacher educators and with their (our) students: future teachers. I conducted research in El Paso, Texas in the summer of 2007.

The purpose of the research was twofold: uncover the lived experiences and context for learning of ten linguistically diverse student participants and understand how these experiences and contexts positioned said students to learn in their schools. Analysis of the data set revealed three main findings: the first two speak to constructs for learning in the classrooms that serve to (a) mitigate and regulate independent learning of the students and (b) invoke survival or anxious responses from the students. The third finding represents a coupling of a growing self-determination that hinges on a protected place to rest, to settle and to flourish. A paper describing this research was presented at AERA (American Educational Research Association) in New York City in April 2008.

In April of 2009, I presented a paper and a poster at the annual meeting of NARST (National Association for the Research on Science Teaching). The paper, titled, Understanding the process of applying inquiry teaching methods in elementary classrooms was initiated by the work that I do at the University of Minnesota with Karen Oberhauser. We co-teach a course on insect ecology (see section on service to the community). I am the evaluator/researcher for this initiative as well as a lead instructor. Over the past two years, I followed closely the work of five exemplary teachers as they apply the content of the course into their classrooms. The paper presented at this conference represents the preliminary data analysis and results of this qualitative research. Briefly, this paper discusses what it means to do inquiry, including the finding that implementing inquiry-based teaching across all grade levels is more guided by the teacher than initiated by the student learner. I intend to continue to follow this group of five teachers for one more year before I begin to write for publication. I also presented a poster, The Practice of Inquiry Within a Small Group of Hmong Youth, which reported on several findings resulting from the analysis of the collective narratives including the fact that the practice of science was different for each of the three Hmong youth. For William, the practice of science was tied with the language of science and teeters tentatively on the expertise and interactions he has within his small group. For Mai, the practice of science was dutiful and pragmatic and absent in passion or curiosity. And finally, for David a practice of science that most closely matches a vision of science practice defined by national reform documents. This study sheds some light on learning in science and illustrate how for each of these students, inquiry is experienced very differently. These findings help us to design instructional programs that better meet the needs of our complex and diverse classroom populations as we move toward more culturally responsive teaching pedagogies.

My latest research efforts revolve around building an understanding of how we as science teacher educators implement reflective practice with our students. To that end, I am currently analyzing interview texts, field notes and course artifacts to understand the process of becoming a more contemplative novice educator.

Over the past academic year, 2008-2009, Dan Moos, Deb Pitton and I initiated a study of cognitive load and pre-service teachers titled (preliminarily): Using theory to explain challenges of novice teachers. Novice teachers are often overwhelmed in the classroom due to the mental efforts needed to address behaviors of individual students and the need to remember and implement lesson plans. Together we are using mixed quantitative and qualitative research methods as we follow participating student teachers in their student teaching placements.

I have also published Exploring Math, a series of books published by Capstone Press. The titles are:

  • Patterns: What Comes Next?
  • Size: Many Ways to Measure
  • Sets: Sorting Into Groups
  • Numbers: Counting it Up
  • Shapes: Discovering Flats and Solids
  • Fractions: Making Fair Shares

Each book featured an illustrated math concept within an emerging reader text. I was honored to have one of my books Size: Many Ways to Measure selected as one of the best mathematics books for children published in 2001 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).