October 2016 Spotlight: Kyle Gray

The October 2016 GER Spotlight is Dr. Kyle Gray, Associate Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Northern Iowa. In his profile, Kyle shares a few of his favorite education research papers that examine conceptual change of mental models about the earth and contrast education research with with physical and life science research. He also describes how GER fits into the landscape of his institution, and highlights a new project on student misconceptions around mass extinctions for which he is seeking collaborators.

What is your favorite or "must read" education research paper?
Here are two papers that I often refer to in my classes.

"Mental models of the earth: A study of conceptual change in childhood" by Stella Vosniadou and William Brewer (1992, Cognitive Psychology, v. 24, n. 4, 535 – 585). This paper shows how children incorporate their older beliefs into new mental models rather than abandoning their prior conceptions. Their results are very intriguing, and provide a model for conducting similar types of research.

Another one is "Educational Research: The Hardest Science of All" by David Berliner (2002, Educational Researcher, v. 31, n. 8, 18-20). This short commentary describes some of the ways in which education research is different from the physical and life sciences. Specifically, we deal with huge variations between people and locations, and we can't even assume that what works today will work tomorrow. This paper is a great way to introduce the realities of education research. I have my grad students read this as an introduction to my research methods course.

What does GER look like at your institution, in your position?
The University of Northern Iowa is a four-year, regional public university with a history of educator preparation. At UNI, secondary teacher education programs are housed within content departments rather than the College of Education, so my appointment is in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences within the College of Humanities, Arts, and Sciences. I am also a member of the Science Education program at UNI – an interdisciplinary program that includes science educators from biology, chemistry, physics, earth science, technology, and elementary education. The Science Ed faculty engage in both DBER and SOTL research. We sometimes collaborate with each other on SOTL projects, but usually conduct our own projects. I am the only person working in GER, so my collaborations on campus are either methodological ("can you help me analyze these data?") or focused on teacher professional development ("Let's run a workshop on implementing the NGSS").

My home department does not have a graduate program, but Science Ed does offer an online MA degree in Science Ed for in-service teachers. We require each grad student to complete a research project or write a unit based on the principals outlined in our courses. Unlike grad programs at other schools, our students live all over the state, are already teaching, and are looking to complete projects that are directly related to what they teach. Consequently, I do not have a ready-made pool of students to help me with my research. This limits what I can do in-house and forces me to seek collaborations with GER people at other institutions.

What is the focus of your current geoscience education research?
I am starting a new project where we are investigating the misconceptions that students have concerning mass extinctions. Our preliminary data suggest that even advanced geoscience and biology students hold some unusual beliefs, and we would like to further explore this idea. To that end, over the next year to two I may be looking for people to collaborate with on this project.

To learn more about Kyle, visit his research website at .