What do you get when you mix a love for the sciences with the realization that you’re a teacher at heart? Soon-to-be triple Gator Darby Battle (B.A. ’17 Biology and M.Ed. ’18). Darby, a second-year doctoral student, was recently honored by the Association for Science Teacher Education with the 2023 John C. Park National Technology Leadership Initiative Fellowship Award. She is the lead author of the paper “Using Virtual Reality with Pre-Service Elementary Science Teachers to Promote Valid Conceptions of the Reason for the Seasons,” which she wrote with advisor Kent Crippen, Ph.D., Jeungtae Eom and Richard Bex.
Growing up in a family of Gators in Williston, Florida, Darby eventually made her way to the University of Florida to pursue her B.S. in Biology. Darby, the daughter of a UF College of Education alumna (Cynthia Fletcher Battle, B.A.E. ’92), explored getting a UFTeach minor while an undergrad but decided to delve deeper into teaching.
“I took the Teaching Secondary Math and Science course, where we learned about Science Education. We also got to go into schools and teach some lessons,” Darby said. “That’s when I was like, ‘Oh no, I’m a science teacher!'”
After finishing her biology degree, she completed our Science Education master’s program before returning to Williston to teach biology at Williston Middle High School. Darby spent three years in the classroom and “had a blast,” but, ultimately, she “needed to switch it up.” This need for change was partially driven by the realization that her students demonstrated the most learning when she designed her own science curriculum.
“I really like trying to figure out the best way to teach my students,” she said. “What inspired me to pick curriculum, instruction and design is that I really love the behind-the-scenes work that goes into determining what’s being learned. I know the science that they need to know, but how do I break this down in a way that sequentially makes sense to them?”
The problem, she says, is that often curriculum assumes students “know or have the same foundational knowledge — and they definitely do not. So I think it was definitely helpful for me to know ‘this is the standard,’ but what are the hidden layers to the standard that they actually need to know before they can learn this big thing?”
Darby is able to blend her love of science education and curriculum development as a doctoral student in our Science Education Ph.D. program. Returning to UF was the obvious choice for her: “I loved the master’s program experience that I had here,” she said. “I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”
Now, she works with advisor Kent Crippen, Ph.D., on projects that seek to understand how people learn science. In her award-winning paper, funded by the Irving and Rose Fien Endowed Professorship in Education, they investigated the efficacy of using VR for teaching earth-science concepts to elementary pre-service teachers.
Those teachers need to know science, Darby said. But, “in many cases, they have had very minimal experience with science learning… They don’t have much earth-space science content knowledge but are expected to teach it.” Natural phenomena, like seasonal change, can be particularly challenging.
“Part of what we saw in the literature is that everyone has these initial framework theories for how the world works in terms of physics, based on their daily experience,” Darby said. “And then you take that to school, and you learn formal information, and sometimes it fits with your theory, like your model, and then sometimes it doesn’t. And it can get more convoluted.”
The team decided to use VR as an experiential learning tool for teaching this concept and administered pre- and post-assessments to gauge learner understanding. They were surprised to discover that “ultimately their (pre-service teacher’s) ideas about seasonal change did not get better.” This insight is valuable for the team because it helps them identify a key learning issue: If lessons don’t address learners’ preconceptions, their misconceptions warp and become more entrenched.
When speaking about her experiences as a doctoral student, Darby said she felt very supported by the community: “We all communicate and work together on projects. Even just in class, we’re all very supportive of one another, and I really appreciate the community. You’re not isolated in your journey through the Ph.D. here.” The mentorship she receives from her advisor Kent Crippen is also helping her navigate the demands of academia.
“From a mentorship perspective, he’s helping you realize when to learn, when you’ve done enough and to know what you’ve gone beyond,” Darby said. “And then to also find those opportunities to maybe kind of step off the gas a little bit… They’re really good about helping us maintain work-life balance.”
Being an EduGator means a lot to Darby. “I think of it as being invested in this community and doing my part to improve education in whatever capacity that may be while I’m here,” she said. “But also imparting that to whoever I come in contact with, whether it’s the students I teach or my peers and colleagues. I just want to do my part while I’m here to make a difference for the better.”
When it comes to making a difference, Darby has her sights set on her next goal: serving those with disabilities through her research. From a learning perspective, she is interested in making museum spaces more equitable and accessible. “I have an aunt with Down syndrome, so adults and children with disabilities are really just an inherent part of my identity,” she explained.
She is also starting to work with Nigel Newbutt, Ph.D., on a project with the Florida Museum that strives to make museum spaces more accessible and equitable for people with disabilities, specifically autism.
“Where we’re headed now is looking at VR — like a virtual tour of the museum — as a tool to prepare individuals with autism for their visit and to help them ultimately have a more successful visit,” Darby said.
This natural collaboration brings together the strengths of the Educational Technology program with Darby’s desire to focus on informal learning in spaces like museums. “Dr. Newbutt and his students are coming at it from a technology perspective. This first piece that we’re doing has more of a technology focus. That will lead the way for me to come in and look at it from a learning lens.”
“Ultimately, that’s where I want to be — in a museum setting like a science center or a natural history museum,” Darby said. “I’m very motivated to say, ‘These people (people with disabilities) should have a seat at this science learning table.'”