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A Culturally Relevant Case Study Alternative for Developing STEM Teachers

1M. H. Hoelscher

1STEM Education Center, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108

corresponding author:
Mary H. Hoelscher, M.Ed.
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
STEM Education Center
University of Minnesota
320T LES
1954 Buford Ave
St. Paul, MN 55108
fax 612-626-0993

Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Science Teacher Education, Clear
Water Beach, Florida, January 4 – January 7, 2012
1 Abstract
Self-study of teaching and teacher education practice is used to explore the effectiveness
of using a new assignment type developed using principals of culturally relevant pedagogy as an
alternative to the static instructional case study in developing science teacher overall
reflectiveness and inquiry practice in a fully on-line science teacher induction course. Novice
STEM (Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology) teachers enrolled in a fully online
induction course engaged in a learning task which required that they analyze and share the
context of their teaching environment, state a goal relevant to their practice, explain their
previous efforts to achieve their goals, dialogue with their peers, construct an plan for action, and
share progress about their actions around their goal in their own classroom. The assignment,
analysis, and opportunities for future work in the area of applying culturally relevant, or
culturally responsive, teaching to the education of science teachers and its impact on science
classrooms are discussed.

Keywords: Culturally relevant pedagogy, professional development, induction, STEM teachers,
online instruction, S-STTEP
2 A Culturally Relevant Case Study Alternative for Developing Science (STEM) Teachers

Instructional case studies are detailed explorations of specific real-world scenarios or
events. Thaller (1994) compiled an extensive bibliography of the use of case studies in teacher
education with publications from as long ago as 1921. By virtue of their format, these cases are
static though technology has enabled them to become more engaging as the case study has
evolved to include web-based, case-based learning. Bronack, Kilbane, Herbert, and McNergney
(1999) report that CaseNET, a web-based, case-method online teacher professional development
community which participants perceived as providing an opportunity to engage in professional,
“exploration, reflection, collaboration, and hands-on interactions with authentic teaching tasks.”
Zeng and Blasi (2010) took the case method instructional approach one step further creating
multistoryline based case studies which permitted learners to explore difference storylines based
on their responses to questions embedded in the environment. Additionally, an animated subject
matter expert and a teacher mentor are available to learners to explain concepts related to the
cases. Results of his study indicated that the design improved learners’ knowledge acquisition in
an environment which the learners’ were interested in.
However interactive the discussion of case studies such as those provided by CaseNET
can be or however dynamic the web may be able to present storylines, the information in the case
study themselves are static, the storylines run out. As the candidate emerges into professional
practice as a novice, the case study may appear over simplified, lacking in depth, and/ or
seemingly unrelated to the real, complex, day-to-day challenges of the classroom. In essence, the
instructional case study method may become less culturally relevant to science teachers as they
progress in their development. Yet, the novice teacher still requires learning opportunities as they
3 develop the “comprehension and reasoning, transformation and reflection” necessary for
teaching (Shulman, 1987). As a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)
teacher educator, I committed myself to creating culturally relevant learning opportunities for my
students, all first through third year practicing teachers. In particular, rather than using static case
studies, as had been used with mixed results in the past in this course, I developed an alternative
called the Venture Vexation Assignment (VVA) with the intent that it would be more culturally
relevant to STEM teachers.
Culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP), “empowers students intellectually, socially,
emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes”
(Ladson-Billings, 1994). Ladson-Billings grounded theory research with teachers whom
embodied this concept in their practice indicated that the culturally relevant teacher, among other
things, saw themselves as a member of the community and viewed their work as an art, “always
in the process of becoming” (1995, p. 478). These teachers also develop a community of learners
in which they participate, developing connections with all of the students. All community
members are encouraged to collaborate and share responsibility for each other. Finally, Ladson-
Billings believes the culturally relevant teacher tends to view knowledge as perpetually
constructed and in need of critical analysis (1994).
This Self-Study of Teaching and Teacher Education Practice (S-STTEP) details efforts
to improve upon an element in a STEM teacher induction course. While all of the teachers in the
course were white, their students, like the instructor had been, were very diverse. Thus, this study
is in part an exploration of how CRP manifests for teachers of diverse students rather than, as in
the traditional sense, of diverse students themselves. CRP is perhaps more a state of mind and
identity on the part of the instructor than it is any particular teaching strategy. The intention of
4 the instructional strategy detailed here was to specifically provide a culturally relevant learning
opportunity within the larger framework of the professional development community of the
course. The questions guiding this study were thus: To what extent did the Venture Vexation
Assignment manifest elements of Critically Relevant Pedagogy? How did the Venture Vexation
Assignment support STEM induction teachers in their own Culturally Relevant Pedagogy?

Ladson-Billings has argued that educational research must occur in “the naturalistic
setting of the classroom and from the lived experiences of teachers” (1994). This perspective
forms the fundamental basis of the methodology selected for this study. Throughout this study I
situate myself within the work through the choice of directly using the pronoun “I” throughout
following the example of Ladson-Billings (1994; 1995) and Zeichner (1990; 1995) and explicit
suggestion of Pinnager and Hamilton (2009).
I wish to make explicit the theoretical lens from which this research is based. As a
trained scientist and a former teacher, I am significantly pragmatic in the methodologies of my
work and research. I utilize whatever methodologies I judge to be most appropriate to effectively
digging in and getting the particular job at hand done. My goal as a teacher and now as a teacher
educator is to promote high quality learning for all of my students. Very early in my experiences
in the classroom, I was troubled by how poorly the education system served minority students,
poor students, second language speaking students, and queer students. My students were my best
teachers. Working directly with them, I developed a pedagogical style I later recognized as most
closely aligning with anti-oppressive pedagogy generally. As a researcher, I have adopted a
5 critical gaze from which I question and problematize the systemic barriers to socially just
learning in STEM. Thus, the questions I seek to answer align with the efforts of critical theorists.
Self-Study Of Teaching And Teacher Education Practice
S-STTEP is defined by Pinnegar and Hamilton (2009) as arising from the desire of
teachers and teacher educators to take ownership of their practice to contribute to teacher
education and teacher development. Within this framework, the reflective practitioner is drawn
to ask how theory is executed in practice and how practice, then, adds depth to the theory itself
(Hamilton, 2004; Pinnegar and Hamilton, 2009). Zeichner (2007) asserts that self-study be
situated in existing theoretical frameworks such that practice builds on the work of others.
Mentoring and induction support is a critical component of the secondary science Initial
Licensure Program at the University of Minnesota. A fully online induction course was
developed to accommodate teachers practicing in increasingly distance locations titled
Improving Secondary Science Instruction: Surviving the First Two Years. Fully online courses
provide numerous affordances for learning well suited to induction STEM teachers including
spatial and temporal flexibility, the development of learner interdependence, and modeling of
best practices of technological integration (Zucker, 2009). The Science Teacher Induction
Network (TIN) uses a Moodle platform and a variety of online tools and strategies to provide
mentoring and on-going professional development. TIN has been continually evaluated since its
launch in 2006. Each year the program is modified to better meet the needs of our beginning
teachers. For instance, the program has been broadened to include support for early career
mathematics teachers and increasingly oriented to STEM teachers as opposed to solely science
. teachers
6 th The context of this study is the 2010-2011 STEM induction course, the 4 iteration of
TIN, which was composed of the following four components: individual reflective journals,
pedagogically based and timely executed topical large group discussions, individually executed
teacher professional development projects, and small group venture vexation discussions.
Learning task: Venture Vexation Assignment
Prior to my teaching the induction course, traditional instructive case studies had been a
component of the course. My experiences with early career science teachers during the prior
three years indicated that these cases were overly simplistic and flat. Essentially, the traditional
case study assignment was not culturally relevant to the complexities experienced by the teachers
in their early careers. I desired an alternative. The goals for the new assignment were to: 1)
continue to provide cases of real world scenarios to promote continued science teacher
development; and, 2) utilize cases which were culturally relevant to the experiences of the
specific teachers in the course.
Gillian Roerhig had introduced a VVA in the University of Minnesota’s Middle School
Science Methods course for which I was a supervising instructor based on the structure of the
Science at the Crossroads conference of 2006 coordinated by John Settlage and Adam Johnston
(Roerhig, 2011, personal communication). Their present description of a vexation begins with a
question, “What is it that ‘vexes’ you about some aspect of science education – anything ranging
from the personal to the global? This is your opportunity to articulate a particular frustration you
have regarding science education. Beyond simply venting, you are to describe the source of your
frustration, the reason the issue is so troublesome, and the implications of this vexation if left
unresolved.” The venture is the response to the vexation, “related to the aspect of science
education that vexes you, you have likely considered paths you could take toward alleviating the
7 vexation. Beyond simply identifying a vexation, your venture describes a possible course of
action you might initiate to resolve, diminish, conquer, or overcome your vexation. It is not
expected that you have yet begun your venture. Instead, we envision that you are approaching a
crossroads where a decision must be made about an appropriate venture for your vexation”
(Science Education at the Crossroads, 2011).
The general theme of the assignment as produced by Roehrig was then operationalized
to comply with best practices for formal cooperative learning as described by Johnson, Johnson,
& Holubec (2008). The most significant element of revisions for the formal group design was
defining the cooperative structure and supporting it as the social support system in the course had
already been shown to be crucial to teacher development (Donna, 2009). Twice in the course the
participant teachers were assigned to: analyze and share the context of their teaching
environment; state a problem or challenge in their practice; identify a goal based on that; explain
their previous efforts to achieve the goal, if there had been any; dialogue with their peers in the
Moodle; construct a plan for action; and share progress about their actions around their goal in
their own classroom. When the participants were not presenting, 6 times each, they were
engaged with their peers by asking questions and providing feedback to whomever in their group
was assigned to present that month. See the full assignment in Appendix A.
11 novice teachers, 9 men and 2 women, participated in the induction course the year
the VVA was implemented. For the purpose of the assignment, the teachers were divided into
three groups based approximately on the STEM discipline they taught. 9 were licensed to teach
science and 2 were licensed in mathematics, see Table 1 for more detail. 8 of the science teachers
held multiple licenses. 9 teachers worked in Minnesota and 2 worked in other States. 6 of the
8 teachers were in their first year of practice during the course and the other 5 were in their second
year of practice. 7 taught in suburban schools, 2 taught in urban schools, and 1 taught in a rural
Data Collection
Data was collected from the course Moodle. The primary documents analyzed were the
teachers’ posts in the Venture Vexation monthly forums (n = 22) with multiple posts threaded
through each forum (n = 238, M = 27.8, SD = 2.7). Supplemental documents included posts
from an initial forum in which group members shared information about themselves (n = 75) and
electronic communication with me as the instructor as related to the assignment.
Data Analysis
Analysis of the documents was performed using NVivo 9. Theoretical nodes were
generated for the three primary factors defined by Ladson-Billings as necessary for students to
attain the benefits of CRP: 1) academic success; 2) cultural competence; and 3) critical
consciousness (1994).
The node for academic success required reflection on what it means for an induction
teacher to be academically successful. In the simplest sense, this generates the question, was the
teacher successfully meeting the requirements of the assignment? This extends to whether or not
they were meeting the goals of the assignment which aligned with the goals for the course. Thus,
coding to this node extended to how the teachers demonstrated the development of best practices
for STEM teachers. This included demonstrating and applying inquiry pedagogy (American
Association for the Advancement of Science 1993; National Research Council, 1996; and
National Research Council, 2000) and technology integration (Zucker, 2009). I purposefully did
not code data related to teachers’ CRP in this node such that I could address that data separately.
9 Ladson-Billings indicates that cultural competence entails utilizing, “students' culture as a
vehicle for learning” (1994, p. 161). This node included linguistic elements drawing from the
work of critical discourse analysis (Fairclough, 1989; Gee, 2010) as I looked for how the
teachers’ home language was bridged to the formal language of education. Linguistic elements
were also noted as an indicator for the cultural comfort that the teachers felt in the structure of
the VVA. More thematically, evidence in this node also related to how the VVA permitted the
teachers to utilize their prior knowledge and cultural, lived experiences.
Coding at the third node, critical consciousness, was based on evidence that the teacher
was brought to question the systems in which they and their students were placed. When coding
in this node, I looked for evidence related to teachers challenging existing educational systems.
This followed from Ladson-Billings, “students must develop a broader sociopolitical
consciousness that allows them to critique the cultural norms, values, mores, and institutions that
produce and maintain social inequities” (1995, p. 162).
The final node, practitioners of CRP, was for evidence of teachers’ practice of CRP in
their own work. I looked for evidence that the teachers were utilizing any of the three elements
of CRP described above in their work with their own students. For instance, strong evidence in
this node related to the teachers expressing responsibility for guaranteeing the success of each
student (Ladson-Billings, 1994).

The effect that the VVA had on the students’ of the STEM teachers in the course are
woven throughout this section of the study.
Academic Success

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