Research Spotlight: Susan Butler

Susan Butler
Q & A with Susan Butler
, Professor-in-Residence,
Palm Beach County, School of Teaching and Learning, Lastinger Center for Learning

What basic questions does your research seek to answer?

The underpinning theme that drives my research is the need to improve STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education for students.  As noted by Honey, Pearson, & Schweingruber (2014, p. 53), “very little is known about how to organize curriculum and instruction so that emerging knowledge in different disciplines will mesh smoothly and at the right time to yield the kind of integration that supports coherent learning.” Therefore, my research seeks to find and validate pedagogical strategies that facilitate cross-curricular STEM instruction. To this end, I pursue studies of instructional innovations that may afford opportunities to enhance teacher quality, both in teacher content knowledge and in pedagogical content knowledge. Within this research frame, I draw upon my experiences in science education, problem-based teaching, and project-based learning.

What makes your work interesting?

What has been interesting, to me, about my research is the power that cross-curricular instruction has to enhance the relevance of education. Students engaged in solving real-world problems are eager to acquire knowledge that will fuel solutions. Therefore, in classes that focus on real-world problems or on solving design dilemmas, such as age-old questions like “Why do we have to learn this?” or “When am I ever going to use this again?” are rarely heard. Real-world problems are inherently interdisciplinary; people in the midst of purchasing a home, for example use STEM skills via scientific research (Where are the “A” schools and is this house within their defined service areas?); technology (What does realtor.com show as a comparable price for a house this size, in this area?); engineering (Is the roof sound?); and mathematics (Will this fit my budget?). Cross-curricular teaching, then, can help prepare students to deal with interdisciplinary, real-life situations.  Such teaching is not, however, the norm as school systems tend to be organized in silo fashion around stand-alone disciplines (e.g., the science department, the mathematics department, etc.). Therefore, using research to validate the need for change and then helping effect such change is an exciting part of my work.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working with the Lastinger Center to complete a four-year study of STEM education in Palm Beach County, Fla. Within the Palm Beach County STEM Initiative, we have had the opportunity to test many components of a STEM ecosystem originally launched in 2013. Various components were created or moved to Palm Beach County to address the STEM needs of four distinct populations: students, teachers, school leaders, and the community-at-large. In Year Three of this project, a preliminary quantitative analyses of a dataset consisting of 164 teacher-participants compared to non-participating teachers indicated the successes of the STEM Initiative components in enhancing student achievement. Sustained, long-term teacher professional development as the Certified Instructional Coaching training and the STEM-Integrated Elementary project (an intensive teacher curriculum development component focused on problem- and project-based learning) showed the greatest positive impacts.  Qualitative analyses have indicated positive changes in teacher attitudes toward and competence in teaching STEM in a cross-curricular manner. I look forward to reporting on the final outcomes of this project while seeking new venues for future work.

To continue my research on cross-curricular STEM innovations, I have submitted proposals in response to two recent National Science Foundation solicitations. One proposal is focused on the transformations needed for a school to become a STEM-certified school; the other endeavors to test the impact on student achievement of teacher professional development that both enhances the computer science knowledge of teachers and aids teachers in integrating computer science into their academic instruction.