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Professor heads for the Hill to promote science education

February 05, 2010

Influencing practice and policy in science education is what drives ASU's Julie Luft and has led to her distinguished service to K-12 science teacher education and renowned research contributions to the field. She considers her recent call from Congress to testify about the status and future of science education to be among her most notable achievements.

Luft delivered her first-time testimony before the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee at the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Education Hearings that took place Feb. 3-4.  She was joined by Craig Strang, associate director of the Lawrence Hall of Science at University of California-Berkeley.

The purpose of the hearing was to inform Congressional subcommittee members about the status and future direction of STEM education in the K-12 sector. STEM education is considered vital to maintaining the United States’ leadership in the rapidly advancing world of science and technology. In her testimony, Luft emphasized the importance of inquiry in teacher education and professional development, and the need for more federal funding to support science organizations involved in research and development. She also stressed the unintended consequences of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, which has limited the amount of inquiry-based instruction in K-12 science classrooms.

Luft’s research programs, many of which have received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), have focused on understanding how teachers develop throughout their careers. Her early work explored the design of teacher education and professional development programs, and how teachers learned to enact inquiry-based instruction through collaboration and hands-on interactions with students. Sharing her research with practitioners is consistently among Luft’s highest priorities.

Her current NSF-funded project is examining the role of teacher induction programs in increasing the longevity and success of secondary school science teachers. It is this work, Luft says, that is influencing how researchers and educators study and view the first years of teaching among content specialists.

Her appearance on Capitol Hill was made on the heels of back-to-back honors received from two prestigious national science associations. 

Luft will be inducted Feb. 20 as a fellow of the 160-year-old American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) – the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science. The honor is in recognition of research in teacher education and extensive service to the science education community, which includes serving as president of the Association of Science Teacher Educators (ASTE), Director of Research for the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), and the Associate Editor of leading science education research journals.

She joins 44 other ASU scholars who have received the prestigious honor, including Professor Dale Baker, also of the Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education, and is included among more than 7,600 fellows of the academy’s 117,000 members.

In January, Luft received ASTE’s Outstanding Science Teacher of the Year Award, the group’s highest honor. The award recognizes science teacher educators with more than 10 years of service and who have made significant contributions to science teacher education.

Luft said the awards were “not something that I expected. I’ve always just been happy doing the work that I’m doing.”

In addition to her “exquisite work in teacher induction and mentoring in science,” ASU Professor James Middleton said Luft’s commitment to preparing the next generation of researchers, and improving curriculum and instruction in the state is well-known and esteemed. 

“It is not uncommon to see ASU students practicing their talks with Julie prior to delivering presentations before professional science teacher education organizations such as the National Association for Research in Science Teaching. (NARST),” said Middleton, who is director of ASU’s Center for Research on Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology (CRESMET) and a long-time colleague of Luft’s.

Kate Scantlebury, professor and secondary science coordinator in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Delaware, said Luft’s “commitment to making stronger connections between the science education research community and the practitioners” is a hallmark of her stellar contributions to the field. Since 2009, Luft has been in a leadership position at NSTA and has focused on cultivating these connections.

Luft cultivated her love for science as a child in New Mexico, where she became an amateur ecologist.

“I was always outdoors learning the names of wildflowers and plants and became interested in natural history,” she said.  “Science was a natural fit for me.”

At the University of New Mexico she majored in and did independent research in ecology, an interest that later blossomed into a passion for improving science education from seventh- through 12th-grade students – a passion which has resulted in leading-edge work that has expanded dramatically since she joined the faculty at ASU in 2004.

Carol Sowers
Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education