Associate Professor, Science Education
"Teachers should understand what their students are doing before they come into the science classroom. I firmly believe you need to know what's happening in the lives of the kids before you can begin to teach them any subject."
"How do scientists, science educators, and students define science?" asks Pamela Fraser-Abder. From her observations as a science educator over the last twenty-five years, Fraser-Abder knows that each defines it differently. "Scientists say science is a constant search for answers about the world around us. Educators say it's a systematic approach to investigate, analyze and describe natural phenomena. And students say it's doing experiments." Keeping all of this in mind, says Fraser-Abder, is crucial for those who teach science. "They can better construct a model for learning that takes into account all of these ideas."
Gender and culture in urban settings also affect the teaching and learning of science, and Fraser-Abder is examining that as well. "Teachers should understand what their students are doing before they come into the science classroom. In other words, what happens at home and on the way from the home to the school, and how does that affect what happens in the classroom? For instance, what if a single teen mother has been up all night with her child? Or a young man had to work the midnight shift at McDonalds to help his family. They both come into class with challenges that are different from those of the other students. I firmly believe you need to know what's happening in the lives of the kids before you can begin to teach them any subject."
Fraser-Abder is also currently working with teachers - both her own student teachers as well as classroom teachers in public schools - to examine the existing research on gender and culture. "We later use these research findings to inform our classroom-based, teacher-directed action research."
Fraser-Abder's research into culture and how it affects schooling has an international perspective as well. "I work with a group of educators called ICRSME (The International Consortium for Research in Science and Math Education). We convene every other year in different Latin American and Caribbean countries. The first day we get to the country we visit schools so that we can get a feel for what the students and their culture are like. We go to classes, then meet with the kids' parents and teachers to talk about our educational systems and research. This way we create a network among all of these people."
In a book she conceived and edited, Professional Development of Science Teachers: Local Insights with Lessons for the Global Community, Fraser-Abder assembled essays that discuss these experiences, as well as science teacher education around the world.
Another aspect of Fraser-Abder's current work involves going with her student teachers to institutions like The Botanical Gardens, The Hall of Science, and the Bronx Zoo. "We go to these sites with a series of questions that the teachers would like to answer. Once there, they engage in workshops and observations to find answers to their questions. This continues as we revisit these sites over time, until the teachers learn how to increase their own learning. This will help them understand how their own students learn."
Fraser-Abder also wants the teachers to make use of the resources that are free and available to them at such places. "Most of our teacher education graduates are going into urban schools where facilities are poor or nonexistent, so it helps if they can understand how to use Prospect Park or their neighborhood garden, for instance, to teach science."
Fraser-Abder says she's always been interested in science. "And I've been teaching since I was five years old. My mother is a teacher and I began teaching my cousins when I was in elementary school." After receiving her Ph.D from Pennsylvania State University, she remained at the university to pursue postdoctoral work on public policy and planning in developing countries. She then returned to the West Indies, where she was born, to teach science education at the University of the West Indies. She later joined the faculty at NYU Steinhardt in the Department of Teaching and Learning.
Incredibly active in the department, Fraser-Abder is the director of the Science Education program. As such, one of her duties is to run MSTEP (Math Science Technology Enhancement Program), which brings in current teachers for masters degree study in math or science education.
As for her own students, Fraser-Abder says that "all of them are eager to learn. Because the in-service students are teaching they have a better feel for the realities of the classroom than the pre-service students. But once they are both in a class together they often work in teams so that those who are not teaching have a chance to go into a classroom with those who are. This way they all get to see and appreciate the day to day realities of teaching."