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Good teaching for better learning

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Maria Varelas
Maria Varelas: “My niche is science education in urban elementary school classrooms — understanding it, enriching it, shaping it with teacher voices, preparing teachers for it.”

Photo: Kathryn Marchetti

The University Scholars Program, now in its 24th year, honors faculty members for superior research and teaching, along with great promise for future achievement. The award provides $10,000 a year for three years.

Maria Varelas is known for her research on the teaching and learning of science in elementary-school classrooms.

A native of Greece, where she received her bachelor's degree in physics, Varelas is professor of science education who has been doing research and teaching at UIC for nearly two decades.

"My niche is science education in urban elementary school classrooms — understanding it, enriching it, shaping it with teacher voices, preparing teachers for it," says Varelas, who earned her Ph.D. at UIC.

"Science is traditionally one of the 'gatekeepers' for students of color and low socio-economic status who do not always have access to equitable resources to make their own life choices," Varelas explains.

"Moreover, girls do not usually acquire early in their school years the kind of confidence and positive attitudes about science that might continue throughout their schooling and contribute to increased presence of women in science.

"So we desperately need to attend to science education in elementary classrooms in different ways, and we need to develop lenses with which to see the strengths of urban children, so we do not continue leaving them behind. 

“That's what I try to do in my work."

Varelas is co-leader of two large multi-year, National Science Foundation projects.

“Science, Kids and Teachers” is a partnership between Chicago Public Schools K-12 teachers and graduate students in UIC's science, mathematics and computer science departments to strengthen these subjects in middle- and high-school classrooms.

Another project, “Integrated Science-Literacy Enactments,” is a collaborative teacher action research and development project with the Chicago Public Schools. The project, for primary-grade classrooms, integrates children's literature with hands-on exploration to promote different ways of thinking and communicating science.

"There isn't much work out there on urban classrooms engaged in science, let alone classrooms with young children — really young ones, first- through third-graders," Varelas says.

She and colleague Christine Pappas, professor of curriculum and instruction, pulled the project together, funded by the largest research National Science Foundation grant awarded in the College of Education. The project also received a grant from the Polk Bros. Foundation.

Varelas is an editor for the journal Science Education and the Illinois Science Teacher Association journal, Spectrum.

She's also won the Award for Excellence in Teaching, plus Silver Circle teaching awards in 2003 and 2000.

What motivates her, she says, is helping kids and students "make sense of the world around them."

"What I have found over the years of working with teachers, kids and university students is that it is the ones least expected by existing studies and 'stereotypical' beliefs about people and the world who have the most wonderful ideas and a strong drive for learning and growing.

“This is a great inspiration for me."


Other 2008 University Scholars:

Space as the new frontier: Marc Culler

Questions with no answers: Yoshitaka Ishii

Living by design: Marcia Lausen

Digging down in the data mines: Bing Liu

The uneasy role of public intellectual: Walter Benn Michaels

In the laboratory, a fight against breast cancer: Hayat Onyuksel

Basic science, with an eye on the clinical: Richard Ye

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