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Oct. 14, 2010 Volume 32, No. 8

Noted science educator to be honored with memorial service


SANDRA K. ABELL Friends and colleagues will remember the late director of the University of Missouri Science Education Center at a memorial service at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Reynolds Alumni Center. Rob Hill photo


Sandra Abell, who died in August, was committed to better science teaching

If you want a sense of how Sandra Abell changed the way people thought about science education at the University of Missouri, stop by a monthly gathering called “The Abell Conversations About College Science Teaching.”

When Abell started the group almost a decade ago, it attracted no more than a handful of regulars to Tucker Hall. Today, several dozen faculty members and doctoral students from every science-related department and school on campus drop by the Life Sciences Center to talk about how to become better science teachers. 

Abell, a member of the faculty in the Department of Learning, Teaching and Curriculum and the Division of Biological Sciences, will be remembered at a memorial service at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Reynolds Alumni Center. An internationally recognized scholar and director of the University of Missouri Science Education Center, or MUSEC, Abell died Aug. 24 of ovarian cancer at her home in Columbia. She was 54.

“Her main mission was to influence how science was taught, and she did a lot to make that happen,” said Mark Volkmann, Abell’s husband and an associate professor of science education in the Department of Learning, Teaching and Curriculum. “She lived it in a lot of ways.”

A native of St. Louis, Abell began her career as an elementary teacher in Norway, Iowa, where she taught science and reading to fifth and sixth graders. After receiving a master’s in gifted and talented education from the University of Northern Colorado-Greeley in 1981, she taught in Iceland, at the Department of Defense Dependents School, and in Albuquerque, N.M., where she also pursued her interest in the life sciences at the University of New Mexico. 

She returned to the University of Iowa and, in 1988, combining her dual interests in science and education, she earned her doctorate in science education. 

Abell loved science, Volkmann said, but her passion was teaching. Abell recognized that to really teach science — to inspire a love for it rather than simply transmitting facts and theory — required connecting scientific knowledge to students’ experiences with the natural world.

“Often what happens in a science classroom is that students don’t connect scientific explanations to the world that’s being explained,” said Volkmann, who came to MU with Abell from Purdue University in 2000. “Sandi wanted teaching to begin with the experience of the students and connect that to the explanations she was helping them to understand.”

By the time she arrived at MU, Abell had expanded her interest beyond elementary science education to the secondary and college level. As director of MUSEC, she developed new programs for recruiting and preparing high school science and math teachers, while helping science doctoral students improve their teaching. She also worked with faculty on funded projects aimed at developing new approaches to science teaching. 

Kathryn Chval, an assistant professor in the Department of Learning, Teaching and Curriculum, remembered meeting Abell for the first time when Chval interviewed here in 2003. She describes Abell as a ”powerhouse” with a strong intellect and a determination to make science education a priority at MU.

“Her ability to build relationships with people and promote research and teaching in science education kind of transformed the culture in many ways,” Chval said. “At most institutions, it’s really hard to establish communities across colleges and bring researchers together in different fields. Sandi was really good at that.”

Pat Friedrichsen, whom Abell brought to MU on a joint appointment in biological sciences and the Department of Learning, Teaching and Curriculum, said Abell was an important mentor to junior faculty at MUSEC and held monthly meetings, dubbed the “Abell Research Group,” at her home.

“Graduate education held a special place in Sandi’s heart,” Friedrichsen said. “She thought of her students as her ‘academic children.’”

Deborah Hanuscin, associate professor in Learning, Teaching and Curriculum, said she came to MU, despite receiving better offers elsewhere, because of Abell. “The kind of mentoring she provided to me was priceless, and the community she created here among scientists and science educators is unique,” Hanuscin said. “I know of no other institution with such an extensive interdisciplinary network in science education.”

A prolific researcher, Abell presented more than 115 papers at national and international conferences, published dozens of journal articles, wrote 14 book chapters and edited three books. One, the Handbook of Research on Science Education, is aimed at policy-makers, as well as educators, and is considered the largest and most comprehensive resource on science-education research.

In 2006, Abell was named a Curator’s Professor at MU, one of the campus’s highest honors. She also served as president of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching and won numerous awards for mentoring graduate students, teaching and scholarship. 

Shortly before she died, colleagues approached Abell about establishing a scholarship in her honor. Volkmann said Abell asked that the proceeds go to doctoral students in science-related fields who wanted to teach, and who exhibited a strong desire to do it well. 

“This was something that was really important to her,” Volkmann recalled. “Part of her work was to change scientists’ way of thinking and to influence their teaching in reform-minded ways.”