Assistant Professor, Science Education
"I'm interested in the assumptions teachers make about learning and using representations, because if students don't understand them from the outset then it's that much harder for them to learn science."
Catherine Milne was standing in front of the high school science class she was teaching when she thought, "Am I asking questions in a way that my students really understand? And am I constructing my lessons in ways that give them the best chance to learn science?' I suddenly had all these questions I didn't feel I could answer as a practicing high school science teacher, and I wanted to understand the discipline more."
Consequently, Australian-born Milne pursued a PhD in Science Education, which she received in 1998 from Curtin University in Perth, Australia. Two years at the University of Wollongong in Australia followed. "There I looked at the skills undergraduates need in order to be successful, and the opportunities teachers provide to help them develop those skills." Milne says that this position helped prepare her for her appointment to the Department of Teaching and Learning.
Current research finds Milne studying how science teachers use representations in science. "Representations are visual forms such as drawings, diagrams, graphs and symbols," she explains. "Scientists use them as an aid to communicate and explain specific phenomena. But representations are taken for granted and it is assumed that students will - by some form of osmosis - learn to use them. I'm interested in the assumptions teachers make about learning and using representations, because if students don't understand them from the outset then it's that much harder for them to learn science."
Milne is also currently studying the strategies teachers can use to improve the general literacy of their students, and the ways in which school administrations and teachers enact policies, such as those associated with No Child Left Behind and Children First.
"These policies have implications for the science learning of students. The No Child Left Behind legislation, for instance, has led schools to require a literacy focus in all classes, including science," says Milne. "While this goal has merit, teachers have to make informed decisions about appropriate literacy strategies that satisfy these policies. This means that people who educate teachers - like me - must fully understand the goals of such policies so that we can convey them to our students." Milne is working with Dr. Sarah Beck, a colleague of hers in English Education, as her literacy expert on this project.
Milne says working with her own students is constantly exciting as they are "very reflective about their own practice. They want to do a good job when they go into classrooms, and they want to have an effect on their students. They are searching for ideas and ways of thinking about teaching that will help them do that."
Milne often brings them into her research by using examples they find in their own student teaching. "For instance, we look at the way they use science texts in their classrooms and try to answer questions such as how can you use these texts with the students you teach? How could you model different ways of analyzing text? How can books be read by students not just for information but also for a critical assessment of the book itself? What I learn from this research is how to better teach my own classes."
Milne says it would be great if the department could continue to attract such thoughtful and hard working students. "I'd also like to see us provide even better models of what will help teachers teaching in urban schools. They really want to make a difference to the students they're teaching, and we need to assist them with this. That's ultimately what those of us in the Department of Teaching and Learning are trying to do."