Preparing the Next Generation of Science Teachers, with Flair
Wheelock’s T. J. McKenna helps educators-in-training discover—and convey—the joy in science
T. J. McKenna’s career revolves around one simple question: how can we make science meaningful, engaging, and relevant to our everyday lives? He began that career as an animal behaviorist and entomologist. But as a grad student at the University of Nebraska, McKenna says, he realized that the audience for research papers is relatively limited and he sought ways for sharing his passion for science with a broader audience.
Now a Wheelock College of Education & Human Development lecturer in science education, McKenna became a staff scientist at the Connecticut Science Center, where (among other things) he cohosted a local TV show called Science Sundays (see him here smashing post–Valentines Day roses with liquid nitrogen) for nine seasons. In addition, before arriving at BU in 2018, he created his own website, Phenomena for NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards)—a site with 2.9 million views—which provides resources and strategies for educators and support staff on how to use everyday science phenomena as entry points into complex science ideas.
“I don’t like to think of it as ‘teaching future teachers,” McKenna says. “I like to think of it as helping students become the teachers they want to be.”
A PhD candidate in science education at the University of Connecticut, he is also a lead designer and facilitator on the NGSX Project, a nonprofit dedicated to reimagining science professional development for the next generation of science educators.
One of McKenna’s Wheelock classes, Science Methods: Teaching in the Sciences, focuses on reintroducing core science concepts in a new way to aspiring middle and high school teachers so they are prepared for the boundless curiosity that awaits them in their future classrooms. Beyond just memorizing formulas, it’s about digging into the core science concepts through what he calls sense-making: beginning with everyday curiosities, like “why does this tree grow taller than that other tree?” and exploring as much as possible the how, while resisting giving the easy textbook-style answers.
“Science is more than facts that old people figured out a long time ago and put into books. Science is exploring and asking questions and being wrong and…having fun,” McKenna says.
In his Secondary Science Methods class, students take those concepts and develop their ability to introduce them to an elementary school student audience. The Wheelock students are given at-home lab assignments, where they record themselves introducing a science concept and demonstrating the ways they’d involve their classroom. For example, one exercise involves students testing the floatability of oranges, slicing and dicing to test what causes an orange to float (spoiler: it’s the peel). They then share these recordings with the rest of the class and discuss how it all went.
“It can feel really vulnerable to put yourself out there like that, but we find very quickly that students love it,” McKenna says. “We pause and then unpack these videos because it really gets into the pedagogical moves behind: how do you introduce a science topic?
Every Friday, McKenna and his students meet with a second grade class at the William Monroe Trotter Elementary School in Roxbury, where they teach a new lesson and afterwards dissect how it went. One entomology-focused lesson involved students engineering their own insects and sharing that with the class.
“We have such a great relationship with the Trotter, and even when teaching through Zoom, the engagement and enthusiasm is easy to see,” McKenna says. Our students have gotten so creative in preparing their lessons—often I’m just as excited as the students are to see how these experiments will play out.”