February 2019 Spotlight: Julie Sexton

Dr. Julie Sexton, Research Associate at The Mathematics and Science Teaching (MAST) Institute and Assistant Director of Assessment at University of Northern Colorado. In her profile, Dr. Sexton discusses her research on how social, cultural, educational, and personal/individual factors influence students' decisions to select and persist in geoscience academic and career paths.

What is the focus of your current geoscience education research?

I am particularly interested in how contextual/structural factors (e.g., social climate, departmental practices, teaching/learning experiences) serve as barriers or supports for underrepresented groups in geoscience. For example, I have been conducting a study to examine how departmental practices may be associated with female students' selection and persistence in geoscience majors. In that research, we are finding that there are departmental practices that may serve as better supports for female students. In another study, we are examining the role of math skills and math anxiety as factors associated with female students' selection and persistence in geoscience majors.

What research methods and approaches do you prefer, and why?

My particular expertise is in qualitative education research methods. However, all of my research studies have qualitative and quantitative education research methods. The studies I conduct require a multidimensional research approach to answer our research questions and that is only possible with qualitative and quantitative methods.

What has been the best tool or resource you've found for developing as a geoscience education researcher?

I value two national conferences: GSA and Earth Educators' Rendezvous. The NAGT geoscience education research research website has great resources and information. The NAGT geoscience education research division is also a great community.

What is your favorite or "must read" education research paper? Why is this paper meaningful for your work?

I really like synthesis articles/books as must reads. Early in my career, I found great value in the Handbook of Research in Science Education (and now there are 2 editions). I still recommend these handbooks to students and colleagues.

What is your advice for an early career geoscience education researcher?

I have worked with many geoscience education researchers because I have taught education research methods workshops for geoscientists for many years. A common theme I've heard from early career geoscience education researchers is that they encounter a barrier when going from doing geoscience research to education research. That barrier is learning a new way to do research. I remember struggling with this barrier myself. My advice is to seek out as many opportunities to learn education research methods. These opportunities can be through university courses or at conferences and through collaborations with later career geoscience education researchers and social scientists. For example, I greatly benefited early in my geoscience education career by crossing paths with Julie Libarkin and Eric Riggs. They were really amazing resources to help me as I transitioned from a career in geoscience to a career in geoscience education research.

What is your advice for someone who is interested in starting out in geoscience education research or scholarship of teaching and learning?

I work with many faculty at my institution who are starting to engage in education research and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Many institutions have Centers of Teaching and Learning that can serve as local supports. Connecting to local institutional resources (even if they aren't in geoscience) can be a good starting place. Additionally, I have several books that I recommend to people. The book I recommend to someone just starting in the scholarship of teaching and learning is "Inquiry into the College Classroom: A Journey Toward Scholarly Teaching" by Savory et al. For someone who wants to engage more deeply in the learning/teaching literature, I like 2 books right now: One is "How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching" by Ambros, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, and Norman. I am using this book with a learning community of faculty who are interested in the scholarship of teaching and learning. The faculty love it. The other book I have recommended to people who are a bit more comfortable with education terminology is "How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures." Both of those books are good summaries of research on teaching/learning. There are two books I like for education research methods. The first is "Introduction to Research in Education" by Ary et al. However, most general education research books are better at desecribing quantitative methods than they are and describing qualitative methods. So my favorite introductory qualitative book is "Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation" by Merriam and Tisdell.

What does GER look like at your institution, in your position?

My position/situation may not be the arrangement that most GER folks have nor is it the arrangement other DBER folks have at my institution. I am a soft-funded DBER/GER researcher in a science and math education center. The science and math center has a couple of other DBER folks. However, most of the other DBER people at my institution are housed within their main disciplinary departments. For example, our biology department has a couple of DBER faculty. I am also the Assistant Director of Assessment in the Office of the Provost. In that role, I oversee faculty and staff teaching and learning professional development across the university. That work spans all disciplines and both academic and co-curricular/student affairs settings.

I collaborate with other DBER folks in addition to people in the social sciences at my institution and at other institutions. For example, right now across several projects I am collaborating with people in biology education, sociology and gender studies, educational psychology, geology, geoscience education research, sport and exercise sciences, educational studies, and applied statistics and research methods.

Our university does not have a geology education masters or Ph.D. program. So the students who work with me on projects are generally in a range of education and social science departments. Our educational psychology graduate program at University of Northern Colorado is a great place for students who started in geoscience and want to get into GER. I work with several of the faculty members in educational psychology and they have faculty interested in science and math education. I have worked with students in that program and they receive a very strong foundation in teaching and learning and education research. I will be looking for a postdoc very soon to work on a grant.

Read Dr. Sexton's most recent publication: "Reasons undergraduate students majored in geology across six universities: The importance of gender and department" 2018 published in the Journal of Geoscience Education.