SERC > SERC News > An Interview with NAGT's new President, Dr. Don Duggan-Haas

An Interview with NAGT's new President, Dr. Don Duggan-Haas

published Nov 24, 2017 12:00am

Dr. Don Duggan-Haas, succeeding Dr. Anne Egger as the new President of NAGT, is Director of Teacher Programs at the Paleontological Research Institution in New York. He played an active role in the development of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and served as Chair of GSA's Geoscience Education Division as well as on the New York State Science Leadership Team for the NGSS. Dr. Duggan-Haas's research is focused on determining the fundamental ideas that are most important for everyone to understand the Earth system and how to help educators nurture understandings of those ideas. Dr. Duggan-Haas's instruction currently focuses on educator professional development, especially as related to systems thinking using climate, energy, and controversial issues as foci. His research and teaching target the same goals and involve the same strategies: using place-based, inquiry-oriented approaches to teaching and learning in order to build deep understandings of Earth system science. To learn more about the new President, the NAGT Executive Office asked Dr. Duggan-Haas a few questions about what he's most excited about for the future of NAGT, his favorite place on Earth, and more:

How long have you been involved with NAGT, and how has being a part of the NAGT community influenced you as an educator?

Don Duggan-Haas: While I've been an Earth science educator for thirty years (since I started teaching high school Earth science in Upstate New York in 1986), I've only been involved with NAGT for about ten years. My first twenty years would have been more effective if I'd joined earlier! The resources and opportunities provided through NAGT have sharpened my educational approaches. Likely the most important piece of that for me personally is the broadening of my professional network. The smart, wonderful and amusing colleagues I've connected to through my participation in NAGT are too numerous to count. Of course, the resources available through JGE, In the Trenches, and the Teach the Earth website are helpful as well, but it's the people that really make the organization.

What is one of your favorite things about teaching?

DDH: I think I want to tweak the question a little, or at least offer a weird preface to my answer. I have loved teaching, and I love helping people deepen their understandings, but it's more like an addiction to work in classrooms (for me) than something done because I like it. The reality is, even though I've spent at least some time in classrooms every semester since I started kindergarten in 1968, I've never liked school.

I think I recognized in junior high or high school that the structure of school is just fundamentally a bad idea - putting a thousand or more teenagers into a building and dividing them up into groups of 20 or 30 and having someone talk at them from 45 minutes (or thereabouts) about the pythagorean theorem and then having them move down the hall and have someone else talk at them for the exact same amount of time about rocks (or whatever) is just a bad idea.

I managed to suppress that understanding for a bunch of years as I went through college (basically the same structure as high school, though the blocks of time were a little different and there were thousands of students off largely by themselves in a little town somewhere), and in my years as a high school teacher, grad student and professor of education. But the understanding came back.
Fieldwork breaks the mold of traditional schooling and I think is considerably more effective than the traditional model. I love being in the field with learners, be they kids, teachers, or other adults. I love looking at a landscape or any feature within a landscape and puzzling through with interested others, why this place, this rock, this fossil, or whatever looks the way that it does. That puzzling is enjoyable when it leads to the deeper understanding of a place and when it leads to deeper questions that we're still working on.

What are you excited about regarding the future of NAGT?

DDH: I'm excited about further raising the voice of geoscience education, and about helping geoscience educators from K to gray and in every kind of setting kick butt at their jobs.

I'm also excited about wrestling with, and making progress on, the tightly connected questions I raised in my remarks at the NAGT Luncheon at GSA: Why isn't there conspicuous evidence of improvement in geoscience literacy? And,Why do we fail to bring innovations to scale?
I have no doubt that the work we've done in geoscience education research has brought improvement to many of our members classrooms and departments, but if these changes are yielding broad improvements in the educational system writ large, there should be obvious improvements in the scientific literacy of the broader population. I am unaware of any such evidence.

If we want there to be evidence in the future, we have to turn some of our attention to why it's not there now. We've learned a lot in the last several decades about what works in classrooms. That's important. We should also give attention to the general question of why classrooms don't tend to work if our goal is to enable learners to apply geoscience understandings to the duties of citizenship and requirements of college and career. We should also look at what generally makes innovations work - why are some innovations adopted and others not?

Successful innovations tend to bring two or more well understood ideas or practices together in non-traditional ways. Berger (2016) labels such innovations as "optimally distinct." They are different enough from current practice to make a difference but not so different as to be difficult to understand.

In our work, we need to not only attend to what works in our own teaching, but what's likely to spread across the system of education. I'm excited at the possibilities that arise from serious investigation into these questions.

What is one of your favorite places on Earth, and why?

DDH: The closest I've ever come to a religious experience was the morning I woke up in the Hoh Rain Forest on Washinton's Olympic Peninsula. It was part of an epic journey catalyzed by the July 1991 solar eclipse. I was teaching high school and took the summer to wander the continent with my dear friend Andy Frank. In 61 days we visited 22 national parks in the US, Mexico and Canada.

For our visit to Olympic, we drove into our campsite in the middle of the night and set up our tent by the headlights of the car. When we came out of our tent the next morning, we were in the "cathedral primeval." Three-hundred foot tall Douglas Firs draped in moss and dappled by the morning sun was as breath-taking a sight as I have ever seen. To awaken in it without having seen it on our way in somehow added to its grandeur. While I've been to many stunningly beautiful places, I don't believe anything will ever dislodge Hoh from the top of the list.