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Teacher inspired professor's passion for science

December 26, 2007

ASU professor Julie Luft’s passion for science was apparent early in her life. As a ninth-grader, she became curious about the process for gasifying coal and asked her science teacher how it was done. The question sparked an impromptu experiment.

“My teacher actually let me do something that was not in the textbook,” Luft says.

She credits this experience and encouragement she received from her science teacher and parents as the early inspiration for her career as a science educator.

“I decided to get a Ph.D. because I was frustrated as a teacher,” she says. “I just couldn’t figure out how to teach science in a manner that served students.”

After completing her doctorate at the University of Iowa in 1994, Luft planned to return to teaching high school science until a faculty mentor suggested that she consider an academic career focused on research, “as it’s what makes a difference in the classroom,” she says.

These words of wisdom have stayed with Luft and continue to inspire her work.

Today, Luft’s research, which focuses on understanding the factors that contribute to successful science teacher induction and retention programs, is at the frontiers of the field. Several of her research programs and initiatives have been funded continuously by the National Science Foundation since she joined the Mary Lou Fulton College in 2005 as a professor of curriculum and instruction. Among them is a grant-funded project that has resulted in the publication of three new books written for secondary science teachers.

Luft is a co-editor of “Science as Inquiry in the Secondary Setting,” “Reforming Secondary Science Instruction” and “Technology in the Secondary Science Classroom,” each with Randy Bell, an associate professor of science and technology at the University of Virginia, and Julie Gess-Newsome, the J. Lawrence Walkup Distinguished Professor of Science Education at Northern Arizona University. The books were published by the National Science Teachers Association.

“The content of these publications is outstanding,” says George Hynd, who will join ASU in January as senior vice provost for education and innovation, and dean of the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education. “This is truly a great reflection of Julie Luft’s hard work and accomplishments as a professor and scholar. I’m looking forward with excitement to working with Dr. Luft and the many dynamic faculty members within the college and across the university when I join ASU very shortly.”

The chapters in Luft’s books were written by leading researchers in science education, including Doug Clark, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction with the Mary Lou Fulton College of Education. The books can be used in study groups, pre-service methods courses or in professional development activities.

“They were written with the goal of sending the best information to teachers, to initiate discussion, support the use of inquiry and technology in the classroom, and reform in the schools,” Luft says.

While hard copies will be available for purchase, NSTA will offer these books to teachers in an electronic format at no charge, which is a first for the association. Luft says any royalties for the hard-cover sales – which she hopes will be none because of the free electronic format – will be returned to NSTA to set up an account for science teacher professional development.

“This was a deal I cut with the publisher to ensure that our writings are shared in order to help enhance secondary science education,” Luft says. “We are on the cutting edge of publishing with NSTA, and the association has been eager to be involved.”

Additionally, Luft is leading a $1.4 million grant-funded project titled “Exploring the Development of Beginning Secondary Science Teachers in Various Induction Programs.”

The project is innovative and urgent, as current data on teacher attrition in the United States continues to indicate that qualified secondary science teachers are leaving the profession annually at alarming rates for reasons other than retirement – with the majority indicating job dissatisfaction as a major factor in their departures.

Luft says there is compelling evidence that the teacher preparation process doesn’t end with pre-service coursework leading to initial certification. Well-configured induction programs ensure that new teachers sustain and strengthen their skills and knowledge to influence student learning.

“Unfortunately, most new teachers receive the same type of induction program, regardless of their content background or teaching objective,” she says. “Providing support for content area specialists is critical in the first years of teaching, and we are just learning how important this is in the field of science.”

The first major release of findings from her three-year study will be a commissioned report for the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

This spring, Luft will travel to Austin, Texas, to serve as the plenary speaker at the Physics Teacher Education Coalition meeting. The coalition, comprising representatives from universities and colleges across the country, is working together to improve the preparation of K-12 physics teachers, and to increase the number and longevity of qualified teachers who enter the field.

Joan M. Sherwood, (480) 965-2114