Science Educator Profile | April Gardner

Featured work: PCK Summit

How long have you been with BSCS?

This seems like a straight-forward question but it’s actually a little complicated! After serving on several advisory boards for BSCS projects, I came to work on a BSCS project in June 1996 while on a sabbatical leave from the University of Northern Colorado. That turned into an extended leave to work on another project, so I ended up staying at BSCS until December 1999. Then I went back to the university, but was fortunate to get a more permanent position at BSCS a year later. So I have been here, most recently, since 2001.

What is your area of emphasis?

I have worked on a variety of projects involving curriculum development, professional development, and science education research, so that question is a little hard to answer. A “common denominator” in most projects I have worked on in the last five or six years is an emphasis in studying and promoting instructional strategies and behaviors that lead to enhanced student learning.

How/when did you become interested in the field of science education?

Hmm, I’m trying to think when I wasn’t interested in that! My parents are both teachers, so I grew up thinking about school and learning from an educator’s perspective. I loved math in high school, but became more interested in science by the end of high school and my first year of undergraduate work. I remember giving an oral report in a sophomore-level life science course—my professor later complimented me and asked me if I had thought about teaching. In graduate school I loved my teaching assistant experience as much as or more than my research experience, so after I got my M.S., I switched to biology education for my Ph.D.

What is your education background?

My B.S. degree is in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Centre College, a small liberal arts school in Kentucky. I have an M.S. in biology and a Ph.D. in biology education, both from Purdue University.

Why is science education important in our lives?

Science literacy is critical for virtually every decision we make in our lives. Our choices about things such as recycling, getting a flu shot, using a particular type of contraception (or not), having prenatal testing, the kind of car we drive, the food we purchase and eat ... all of these choices and many more are related to science understandings, and our choices should be informed by these understandings.

What are you working on at BSCS right now, and with whom?

One of the most exciting things I have worked on this year is the “PCK Summit.” My co-principal investigators on this project are Janet Carlson, BSCS Executive Director, and Julie Gess-Newsome, Dean of Education at Willammette University (and also a member of the BSCS Board of Directors).

PCK is “pedagogical content knowledge,” a phrase coined by Lee Shulman of Stanford University in 1986. Shulman proposed that teachers possess a unique kind of knowledge, one that is different than just knowledge of the content (for example, the physics knowledge that a research physicist possesses) or just general pedagogical knowledge, such as generic classroom management techniques. Teachers understand which concepts are most likely to be challenging for their students, the best examples and analogies to help them grasp these concepts, and the kinds of scaffolding they need to become fluent with these concepts—this unique knowledge is what Shulman called pedagogical content knowledge. This notion resonated with many science educators and research on PCK has been conducted by researchers across the globe for the past 25 years. Because the idea of PCK was theoretical, however, definitions and understandings of PCK have diverged as different research groups have pursued different aspects of PCK.

The purpose of the PCK Summit was to bring together leading PCK research groups from across the world to share and compare our ideas and to see if we could converge upon one or a few conceptions of PCK and define promising research directions to advance this field.

Twenty-seven researchers from seven countries, plus two facilitators and two evaluators, met in Colorado Springs in October to engage in this work. The meeting was characterized by eager sharing of conceptions and research results, open discussions of flaws in our work, willingness to consider alternative explanations and definitions, and enthusiasm for the promise of ongoing research. We emerged with a consensus definition for PCK and several planned collaborations for future work.

Who will this work benefit and how does this help bring our mission to life?

The most direct beneficiaries of PCK research are professional development providers and teachers. Teaching is a complex endeavor and classrooms are complicated places. PCK research gives us insight into the constellation of concepts, instructional strategies, understanding of students, and attitudes toward teaching and learning that result in enhanced learning for students. Results of this research inform both PD providers and teachers about critical aspects of how people learn and the instructional behaviors that most effectively support this. The ultimate beneficiaries, of course, are the students.

Have you been published recently in a science journal or publication?

My most recent publications are co-author (with Joe Taylor and Rodger Bybee) of a chapter on the role of curriculum materials in reform for the NSTA publication Reforming Secondary Science Education, and editor of The Biology Teachers Handbook, a BSCS publication. In addition, several papers reporting our work on PCK have been or will be soon submitted to education journals.

Learn more about the PCK Summit.
View PCK Summit photo gallery.

The PCK Summit project was funded through the NSF REESE program, the Spencer Foundation, and a transfer of funds from an NSF grant housed at the University of Missouri. BSCS is proud to partner with like-minded organizations committed to making a difference in science education.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1108899. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.