He's Not Just Teaching Science


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Oct. 28, 2012

He's Not Just Teaching Science


Trinity University education professor Jeff Nordine is preparing educators to inspire the next generation of scientists


 SAN ANTONIO - When considering a future as an elementary school teacher, many Trinity University students tell Jeff Nordine, assistant professor of education, that they are excited to teach math and English but aren't very interested in science.

Big mistake. As the education department's go-to science guy, Nordine's goal is to recruit more teachers for all grades in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and to share his passion for science as a way to help school children see, understand, and appreciate the world around them and its challenges.

 "I love to sit down with undergraduates and tell them what an amazing experience teaching is. It's your job, as a science teacher, to get students excited about the cool things in the world and how to solve problems."

And what does he say to college students who are slow to embrace science? "I tell them, 'If you're an elementary teacher, you're a science teacher!'" Many elementary teachers were not science majors, Nordine says, adding that children are born with an innate curiosity about things that science can explain. Unfortunately, that spark is often snuffed out by years of boring lessons like watching videos offered by ill-prepared science teachers and practicing for standardized tests, he says. 

Nordine, who earned a bachelor's degree in physics and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Trinity before pursuing a doctorate, says science instruction is not about teaching a set of facts to students. He wants to equip educators leaving Trinity with a passion for not only teaching subjects such as biology or chemistry but also ready to inspire the next generation of scientists. "Our prosperity as a country relies on how well we can educate about scientific and technological ideas. We should focus on equity in education, and a key component of educational equity today is a focus on science and technology.  For students to get a better opportunity in the world they will inherit, we need to get them to understand and love science."

An inquisitive child, Nordine's favorite book Why Things Are and his idle hours were often spent playing with his "Speak & Math" electronic game. He loved history and the sciences, but it wasn't until he arrived at Trinity that he decided in his sophomore year to tackle physics. Once he learned about the principle of conservation of angular momentum, he recalls, "I couldn't tell enough people why helicopters have to have two rotors." As a junior, his roommate, Mark Larson '97 '98 '02 and founder of KIPP San Antonio, invited him to consider combining his love of physics with his love for kids to become a science teacher. Nordine never looked back.

"The thing that is cool about teaching science is that you appreciate so much more about nature and what's going on around you. If you understand science, you see the world in a whole different way. You see order in things, and the underlying reasons why things happen, and you can make predictions about what will happen."

As a first-year physics teacher at the newly-opened O'Connor High School in San Antonio, Nordine taught for several weeks before the school's lab equipment arrived. 

In the interim, he improvised by using pieces of paper and wooden dowels to teach a unit on measurement and motion. He also lined up students with stop watches to time a classmate (wearing a safety helmet) riding by on a bicycle. "It was low tech, but using everyday stuff helped students to connect with the activities." He began to realize that the simple materials were useful in the absence of what he calls "fancy equipment" that not every school has or can afford. Worse, he notes, is the danger that kids think the science doesn't really apply in their everyday world since they need special equipment to see it.

At Trinity, he has spent the last three years conducting the Trinity Science Teacher Institute for urban elementary school teachers. He also is collaborating with professors from a wide range of science departments to develop a new interdisciplinary science course designed to prepare elementary and middle school teachers for science instruction.

"When I look at the big challenges - such as all kids getting a high quality education and being prepared to succeed in tomorrow's world - I consider my role a huge privilege," he says.

Courses Taught

Teaching Science in Elementary School

Teaching Science and Mathematics in Middle and High School

Seminar In Urban Education Policy and Practice

Practicum:  Grades 8-12

Selected Publications and Presentations

Nordine, J. & Torres, R. (in press) "Enhancing Science Kits with the Driving Question Board." Science & Children.

Nordine, J. (2011). "Motivating Calculus-Based Kinematics Instruction with Super Mario Bros." The Physics Teacher, 49(6), 380-382.

Nordine, J., Krajcik, J., & Fortus, D. (2011). "Transforming energy instruction in middle school to support integrated understanding and future learning." Science Education, 95(4), 670-699.

Nordine, J., & Drake, A.* (2012). "Exploring the relationship between integrated understanding of energy and preparation for future learning."  Paper presented at the 2012 NARST International Conference, Indianapolis, Ind.  (*Trinity University student author)

-- Susie P. Gonzalez