Cultivate Partnerships to Build Your GER Career

Sharon Locke, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

My interest in geoscience education began while I was still a PhD student at the University of Minnesota. While finishing a dissertation in paleohydrology, I also had responsibility for coordinating the introductory geology courses that reached hundreds of students in a year and taught the lecture portion of the course for a semester. Being in front of more than 200 students was intimidating, but I also saw it as a chance to express my creativity by finding new ways to keep students engaged, for example, by using the long stairway in the auditorium to create a geological time scale. In my first two faculty positions after graduating, I was drawn to opportunities to work with earth science teachers during summer workshops. At the time, earth system science frameworks were becoming more prevalent, and the teachers were excited to explore ways to teach about the earth as a system and incorporate satellite imagery into their classrooms. From those very positive experiences with engaged teachers, my interest in educational innovation and understanding instructional effectiveness was sparked and never diminished.

Careers don't always follow a linear path, and the turning point in my understanding of geoscience education research as a discipline happened while I was a program officer at the National Science Foundation (NSF). I always had an interest in working at NSF, and thought I would be in the Geosciences Directorate, but unexpectedly a relevant position opened up in what is now the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings (DRL). Suddenly I was working with colleagues who were education researchers, including strong research methodologists, and forced to learn about research design, methodologies, and data analysis in a much more sophisticated way. I never would have even thought to apply to DRL had it not been for a colleague who was rotating back to his university. Yet it was the best thing that could have happened for my career and pathway to becoming a competent geoscience education researcher. Since leaving NSF I have tried to continue to deepen my understanding of methodology, and I draw on the expertise of colleagues whose background and training span education research and the learning sciences, many of whom I met while at NSF.

I am currently the director of a university research center for STEM education, and this position requires that my scope of work be very broad, encompassing all scientific disciplines and multiple grade levels, including undergraduate education. One of our research associates acts as my research partner for geoscience education projects—she is not a geoscientist, but brings a depth of methodological expertise that complements my own knowledge. Our center has a strong portfolio in informal learning, and we are applying research methods from other studies to advance understanding of informal learning in the geosciences. I am a strong advocate for interdisciplinary partnerships, and would advise someone starting out in GER, especially if their PhD is in geological sciences, to seek out a collaborator who is trained in education and/or social sciences, even someone who works outside of science education. In addition to our own staff, I partner with researchers at the Illinois Education Research Council, who have exceptional skills in quantitative analysis of large datasets. All of these partnerships bring a rigor to my studies that I could not achieve in isolation.