Preparing Non-traditional Learners as Next Generation Science Teachers

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Meenakshi Sharma, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor Science Education
Mercer University
Dr. Stephanie August
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Stephanie E. August, Ph.D.
Independent Consultant
Engineering Education

Our preservice teacher education program at Mercer University enrolls many non-traditional adult learners.1,2 Unlike traditional learners who pursue undergraduate education immediately after completing high school, non-traditional learners return to higher education after a gap in their education.3-6 These non-traditional learners face inflexible coursework, lack of experiential learning, and social exclusion, compounded by additional family and financial responsibilities, all of which lead to isolation and present challenges for academic success.4,7-10 These students bring life and work experiences to the classroom that can enrich classroom discussions and activities.

How can we support non-traditional learners and provide an avenue for them to use and share their knowledge? How might we engage them in authentic learning experiences, scientific practices, and rekindle the child-like curiosity essential to teaching science in an effective manner? How can we support their learning in blended online courses?

I began to find answers in authentic hands-on learning opportunities such as experiencing phenomenon, immersing in outdoor science learning using nature journals, and exploring avenues for science learning within local communities.

Create Coursework that Empowers Non-Traditional Learners

The science methods course I teach has a two-fold purpose: To consider and apply what we know facilitates learning among non-traditional adult learners and to develop coursework that is grounded in the latest science education framework. As a science teacher educator, my role within the program is to educate and prepare adult learners as future K-5 science teachers. Every spring, I teach an eight week, blended elementary science methods course to a class of non-traditional adult learners. Initial attempts to teach the course with traditional methods and strategies that I use with traditional learners did not engage non-traditional students. These approaches were primarily meant for face-to-face learning environments and needed improvement to provide an active learning environment online. Also, approaches used did not account for the characteristics, backgrounds, gaps, and experiences of non-traditional preservice teachers.

The science methods course mentioned in this article is still evolving and exemplifies an effort towards humanizing the university coursework for this set of learners. The course design draws on adult learning theories and my first-hand experiences with non-traditional learners. I build on these learning theories and plan course activities that align with them (see Table 1). These activities and assignments afford flexibility, choice, and opportunities for experiential learning. They involve non-traditional preservice teachers with authentic natural world phenomena, engage them with scientific practices11 using nature journaling,12 and support their awareness and connectedness to their local environments using citizen science projects.13 This blog presents examples of non-traditional preservice science teachers’ engagement with these projects. It also shares an asset-based narrative because these examples establish a connection between responsive coursework and the positive and empowering learning experiences it can provide for non-traditional learners.

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Table 1. Andragogy theory (Knowles, 1980).14

Align Empowering Coursework with Current Science Education Framework

In addition to being responsive to adult learners’ needs, the science methods course has specific goals aligned with the tenets of the current science education framework15 and the ensuing Next Generation Science Standards.16 Together, the framework and the standards present a meaningful and equitable view of science learning in K-12 science classrooms and have implications for science teacher preparation.17 The NGSS advocates for a paradigm shift in how science has been taught in schools. Traditionally, school science has been teacher-centered and focused on front loading students with science facts and vocabulary. The NGSS-aligned science instruction requires teachers to involve students in the process of scientific sense making, an active process of thinking and figuring out the workings of the natural world.18 The following sections illustrate activities from the science methods course to address this two-fold purpose.

Provide Non-Traditional Preservice Teachers First-Hand Opportunities to Experience New Ideas About Teaching Science

Non-traditional learners have life and work experience, but because they return to higher education after a long gap, they must often unlearn old ideas to adopt new notions of teaching and learning.20,21 One such new idea is moving away from learning science as isolated topics to figuring out the natural world using science and engineering practices.19 It is crucial for non-traditional preservice teachers to understand this shift and its significance for student learning. For that purpose, they must experience the kind of instruction they are meant to enact for their future students.

With the support of my colleague and founder of Phenomena for NGSS, TJ McKenna, I designed an assignment that requires non-traditional preservice teachers to document their observations, investigations, and explorations of natural and designed science phenomena of their own choice or from a list provided in the course. They further research science ideas that explain reasoning and mechanisms behind these phenomena. The project allowed adult learners a hands-on experience, and they were able to rekindle their excitement and curiosity for doing science (see Images 1 & 2 below). It also provided a chance to reflect on how phenomena-based instruction promotes student thinking and inquiry-based learning.

Flexibility and choice during coursework can have encouraging influence on non-traditional learners.22,23 Therefore, students had agency to choose the place and phenomena of their interest for this project. Images 1 and 2 below show preservice teachers exploring by recording the effect of jumping jacks on the heart rate and using mirrors to bend a laser light and then using baby powder to show the light rays.

Examples of Preservice Teachers Trying Science Phenomena
A student in a white hooding and ballcap is shown jumping in the air with arms spread out to the sides in motion of raising them.

Image 1: Recording the effect of jumping jacks on the heart rate. (Image credit: Meenakshi Sharma)

In a dark room, a laser is shown extending up towards the ceiling where two mirrors reflect the laser back and forth.

Image 2: A way to bend light using mirrors and baby powder. (Image credit: Meenakshi Sharma)








“I think that phenomena is a great way to get students interested in what they are learning. A lot of times students think it is magic when you show them something that can be explained by science.” – Student 1

 “It was also a concrete learning that made me think about things the students would have at home to use on their own time for discovering and showing their siblings, friends and/or parents. That way they can use what they learned in the classroom in other places as well.” – Student 2

Promote Experiential Learning and Recreate the Joy of Science Learning Among Non-Traditional Preservice Teachers

Returning to higher education can result in stress and anxiety for non-traditional learners. They often take out loans, continue to work full time, and are responsible for providing care for family and dependents.1 Such stress and anxiety can influence their academic life and their orientation and involvement in their learning. Unresponsive university coursework that solely values meeting assignment deadlines and using ‘one size fits all’ policies can demotivate adult learners. It can potentially shift their attention away from meaningful learning of course content to just filling requirements and earning grades.5

We need to use pedagogies that reduce coursework anxiety, support readiness to learn, and generate positive course-related experiences for them.

During the pandemic, like many others, my adult non-traditional preservice teachers dealt with external commitments and stressors while trying to attend online classes. It became a constant critical need to ease tension and nervousness during online classes and provide meaningful course learning interactions that could sustain engagement and sense of community. I took inspiration from a group of science educators trying a nature journaling approach with their preservice teachers. The nature journaling approach I use is NGSS-aligned based on How to Teach Nature Journaling.12 The authors define nature journaling as a process of collecting and organizing observations, questions, connections, and explanations in relation to the natural world around you on the pages of a notebook using words, pictures, and numbers.

In 2021, I implemented nature journaling with my non-traditional learners for the first time. Each week they documented their observations, investigations, and data using images, hand sketches, and numbers. Each online journal activity also integrates discussion questions to engage students in scientific sense-making by involving them in comparisons and contrasts, discerning patterns, and cause and effect relationships documented in their journal entries (see examples below).

The Trillium Flower (Image credit: Meenakshi Sharma)

Illustrations and Reflections from Preservice Teachers’ Nature Journals

“My journal is about a Trillium flower and how surrounding vegetation impacts where this species grows. Trilliums need optimal conditions to develop, such as partial shade, moist ground, and tall trees. Observing where it grew, I noticed that the surrounding vegetation contributes to the ideal requirements. Plenty of ferns and moss retain moisture, pine trees provide shade, and leaf decay provides nutrients. Thus, the direct environment is positively impacting the growth of this plant in my front yard” – Student 3

A journal entry with a drawing of a pine tree branch and blurry writing describing the individuals parts of the pine tree branch. The journal entry has sections for making observations, asking questions, and making connections.

Pine Tree Branch (Image credit: Meenakshi Sharma)

“I was able to look around and monitor anything that could possibly happen around me. I was able to listen to nature and look at nature while creating my own definitions of what my observations meant to me. Based on this experience the nature of science is something that we can observe. There is no wrong or right, it is simply what you see and what resolutions you draw based on what you see. I would define it as the study of nature, the world around you and everything in it.” – Student 4

Nature journaling allows multimodal learning, agency, and individual expression, something rare in conventional university course work. Students write, sketch, or record audio and video to express their observations and explanations of the natural world.24 It provides rich context for informal experiential learning which has been found to have positive and transformative effect on non-traditional learners.25-27 Importantly, nature journaling proved to be a time for rejuvenation and connection with nature for these adult learners. It supported distance learning during the pandemic and generated occasions for online discussions. I continue to use nature journaling within my blended courses. In the future, I hope to have my students implement journaling work in their own classrooms to examine how it can promote science interest and scientific sense-making among young learners.

Leverage Community Resources to Expand Non-Traditional Preservice Teachers’ Ideas About Science Teaching

Non-traditional learners typically work as paraprofessionals in schools before moving to the teaching profession. They become an integral part of school communities and neighborhoods.28,29 It is crucial that they build on their community resources for science teaching. It can help develop a sense of belongingness and motivate learning by creating awareness about local phenomena. To meet this goal, I ask students to use technology apps such as iNaturalist or eBird to collect observations and data within their local contexts and contribute this information to existing online citizen science databases. They use existing online data to make comparisons and sense of information collected in their own neighborhoods, backyards, local parks, nature trails, and creeks.

Examples of Citizen Science Projects by Non-Traditional Preservice Teachers
On the left, red japanese maple leaves extend out on a branch, to the right is a screenshot on naturalist showing green leaves and the app declares "unknown species"

Dr. Sharma’s students compared observations they made to observations on iNaturalist. (Image Credit: William Milliot; Meenakshi Sharma)

“I used the iNaturalist’s app to contribute 2 observations to local projects. My first was a Japanese Maple. I’ve seen a few before but heard they are rare. I found two walking along a trail near the Etowah River. They were beautiful! I contributed this observation to the project Cherokee County Georgia: Biodiversity Database. I just moved to this area, so it was interesting to look through all the observations made in the area. The Woody Plants at Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center had observations from people in the community who posted pictures of plants and trees.” – Student 5.

Students research and share details of the citizen science project they contribute their data to and their rationale for selecting a project of certain nature. Some students choose to do a photovoice-like project in which they choose photographs to share an issue in their local community and how they can use that to develop a science unit. In all, when preservice teachers share these projects with each other, it helps them discuss concerns across their communities that are of socioscientific interest.

Model the Behaviors We Want to Pass Along to Our Students

Non-traditional learners need coursework that accounts for their life situations and background experiences to engage meaningfully. University coursework that fails to take a humanizing stance can demotivate non-traditional adult learners which can result in students dropping out of the program. These learners need suitable learning contexts and strategies that complement their learning styles. To create responsive courses for non-traditional adult learners (preservice science teachers in this case) it is important to drop conventional course structures and get creative. Immerse non-traditional adult learners to experience the same curiosity, excitement, and joy in science learning that they should implement for K-5 students and beyond. Eliminate learning barriers by offering flexibility and agency in coursework. Generate opportunities for positive learning experiences and thus asset-based narratives about non-traditional preservice teachers.