Learner, Teacher, Leader, Family Member Interview #5: Dr. Sarah Sheffield

The resin cast of a trilobite that inspired me to get back in touch with Dr. Sarah Sheffield.

Sarah Sheffield, PhD, and I went to UNC-Chapel Hill at the same time. As we both pursued degrees in earth science fields, we took quite a few classes together. As a paleontology student, Sarah got to

create casts of fossils (while I wrote lesson plans...). Sarah gave me resin cast of a trilobite that I got to bring in when I was student teaching and keep for my future classroom. Last year, when we moved to Fort Lee, VA, I found the trilobite cast in a random box of clothes our movers had packed and couldn't stop chuckling, wondering what they had thought. I messaged Sarah about it (and how much my former students had LOVED the cast) and since then, we've talked a bit about all kinds of science education topics, life, etc. As I've stepped out of working in schools, I've SO enjoyed talking to a college professor, especially one so passionate about equity in science education, science careers, academia, and more. I hope you enjoy hearing from Sarah about learning, science education, and the need for joy and confidence in learning (even when we're "wrong")!

  1. Tell readers a little bit about yourself! Who are you? What do you do? What excites you about the upcoming year? Hi there! My name is Sarah Sheffield; I’m a paleontologist at The University of South Florida, which means I study fossils (primarily echinoderm fossils, the ancient relatives of sea stars and sea urchins). This fall, I’m transitioning to a permanent job here at USF to become an assistant professor, which means I’ll be paid to teach classes about paleontology, research, and mentor students-I’m thrilled about this opportunity! My job is focused on learning new information and teaching students how to use this new knowledge-it’s really my dream job!

  2. What is the most interesting/meaningful/helpful/cool thing you learned? Where did you learn it? How did you learn it? I think the most meaningful thing I have learned in my education is that 1) nothing about the natural world is as simple as we think it is and b) we will never know everything there is to know. I’ve learned these lessons over and over through every scientific study I’ve done and through every student question that I get asked. Rather than this being frustrating (which it definitely can be sometimes), I try to use this as a reminder that science isn’t about answers-science is a process to ask more questions. It’s what makes me love it so much!

  3. What is a ritual (thing done over and over again, dailyish) or tradition that your family had that you loved? Hm, this might sound silly, but my family (my mom and my two siblings) had a tradition of eating at the Pizza Hut dinner buffet every Tuesday when I was a kid. We didn’t have a whole lot of money when I was growing up, so the only splurge we really had was that we would go to Pizza Hut on Tuesdays, where kids would eat free with a parent (so under $10 bucks for the entire family to eat!) and we’d always feel fancy. It was a time where I could spend time with my entire family and slow down for an hour or two before my mom had to go to work again or my siblings and I had to do homework. They’re some of my favorite memories, to be honest!

  4. In your work with students, what do you make sure you do each class meeting? Every class period, I make sure to tell my students that I value their curiosity and their creative questions. My classes thrive on students asking questions or students getting a chance to hypothesis about the information I’ve given them. I teach a lot of students (a few hundred a semester, usually) and I want them to know that I value their thought process and their interpretation of the data. It can be hard for students to feel comfortable voicing their opinion, so I always want to encourage them to keep doing it!

  5. I was a high school science teacher, so I love opportunities to talk vertically to educators. In your teaching experiences as a college professor, what have you noticed college students seem well prepared for? What do they struggle with? Students struggle a LOT with confidence. Students have learned through bad experiences or bad grades that science is hard and they’re supposed to struggle. I don’t love that idea-I want students to love science, regardless of whether or not it comes easily to them. It’s a lot easier to learn a subject if you enjoy it! One thing that my students do come prepared for, usually, is the motivation to do well. Most of my students are ready to put in the work to learn, even if they struggle a bit with exams or homeworks. I love that about where I work-students pop by my office all the time to try and learn more!

  6. Looking at the outreach section of your website here, it's clear you are passionate about helping empower girls see themselves as future scientists. What challenges did you face as you worked to become a tenure track professor at a university in a field where females are underrepresented? There are a lot of challenges that women face in underrepresented fields. A lot of it can be summed up as small incidents that can build up over time. Comments like, “oh, I didn’t know there were so many girls interested in science” or “you’re too young to be a professor”, or “well, women are generally picked over men to fill diversity quotas” really add up over time. They can make you feel like you don’t belong in academia. Many times, people don’t understand that what they are saying is so harmful, but that doesn’t change how it makes people feel. Other incidents along my way to becoming a tenure-track professor have been harder to overcome-professors who truly don’t think women can be as smart as men, or peers that purposefully exclude you, but I remain hopeful that it can and will improve with more awesome women going into science careers that they love. Unfortunately, all underrepresented groups are affected by these attitudes, from women to disabled people to people of color and it’s much harder for people who identify as part of more than one underrepresented group.

  7. What can PreK-13 educators do to encourage minoritized students pursue further education in science fields? And...why does that matter? It matters so much to encourage underrepresented students to engage in science. Science thrives on creative thinking and unique problem-solving skills and these skills develop through different experiences in one’s lifetime. Therefore, if we are not working to make science more inclusive for all people, we’re limiting the talent in science because we’ll be losing so many perspectives that could be solving incredibly complex questions in our society. More importantly, though, science right now is not representative of our society. Often, members of underrepresented groups experience discrimination that can actually force them to leave science. That needs to be changed. We need to make science represent the beautiful diversity we have here on Earth and make it a healthy, thriving environment for everyone.

  8. If you could change one thing about teaching and learning, what would it be and why? If I could change one thing about learning (and only one!), I’d want to change how we view being “wrong”. Students are terrified to be wrong! And why wouldn’t they be? We’ve set up a system that for their entire education they need to be right to get good grades. But the honest truth is that as a scientist, I will be wrong about my science more than I will be right. That’s how science works! I work constantly to test my ideas until I can find something that is more correct. I want to teach students that being wrong is totally OK! It’s how you proceed from there that’s more important-can you use your “wrong” answer to get you closer to the correct answer? Can you teach others using what you learned from being wrong? Can you reevaluate your evidence to make a conclusion now that you know what won’t work? That’s much more important than just getting the answer correct, in my opinion.

Reflection and thoughts about Dr. Sarah Sheffield's responses:

Confidence and joy: As a former high school teacher, I wholeheartedly agree that students came to me lacking confidence, and I taught 9th grade. In Sarah's responses, I noticed something interesting - we know that joy in the learning process lets us persist and discover more, we know that questions are necessary, we know that being wrong is a way to learn, and yet, we still are fast to grade and label student work in ways that bring more focus to shortcomings than the process of learning. To me, it seems that despite our obsession in the world of education with cultivating growth/dynamic mindsets in our youth through how teachers talk, our educational and child-raising practices have made it so we have young people cannot separate themselves from their grades. (Growth mindset: based on the idea that our brains can change, so if we struggle with something we can learn it - growth mindset sounds like, "I worked hard and learned a lot" while a fixed mindset sounds like, "I'm dumb" or "I'm an A+ student!") Students may be willing to work hard, but seldom feel that they are enough. There must be a way to demonstrate that we can maintain confidence in ourselves even when we are wrong. If we are attempting to help students maintain a growth mindset while simultaneously slapping numbers, labels, letter grades and more onto their work, are we really doing what we say we are trying to do? Here are some ideas cultivating joy and confidence in even our youngest learners:

  • Provide challenges with scaffolding. Learning is joyful when it is REAL. For example: "We want a birdhouse for our house/classroom window" could lead to lessons on design, geometry, area, how to use tools, tool safety, and so much more. Choose a real problem (ideally with learner input) and then list what you need to know and be able to do before you tackle the big task.

  • Grade summative work, not formative tasks. This is CRAZY weird to do if you are a teacher used to grading EVERY assignment ever and it takes students a bit to adjust to sometimes. Summative tasks might be end-of-unit tests, projects, or papers. Formative tasks are homework assignments, classwork, quizzes (but if you give pop quizzes, I will frown at you), etc - anything that shows you students are FORMING knowledge. Many teachers worry students won't do the work if they don't get a grade on it. If you explain why you are grading this way ("I only grade work once you have learned all the material, not while you are still learning - this would be like deciding which team wins a game by watching practice and not the game") it often helps. Still worried? Have a transition period where you give completion grades for formative tasks. Then, transition to giving feedback only so students know what they have left to master/learn before the final assessment.

  • Notice and name learning and use person-first language. Make the time to notice even the tiny bits of learning learners are showing, even if it is unexpected. This might sound like, "I saw how you tied your shoes" or "I noticed that you went back and checked your work" or "YAY, you looked in your notes when you were confused!". Using person-first language challenges us to always think of people before any label we have assigned to them, ie "Sam is visually impaired" not "blind Sam". I would also challenge you to think of this as separating actions and behaviors from someone's personhood. For example, "Xavier tries hard in math and is great at multi-step addition problems" rather than "Xavier is a math-kid". When we teach kiddos to separate themselves from their performance on a given day or task, we create space for their confidence in who they are to grow, and it becomes easier for us to see how infinitely capable every learner we know truly is.

Science for ALL: As Sarah described, without a diverse group of scientists tackling the array of problems we face, without solutions as unique as the people, climates, and cultures we are from, we are limiting ourselves, our well-being, and our sustainability. So, how do we invite everyone to participate in and excel in science?

  • Be intentional. As Sarah mentioned, language matters. The things we say (or don't say), even without noticing, have power. When a male student takes lab equipment from a female student or doesn't give her space to work, we have to step in. When a student (particularly a student from a culture of power) says, "That's racist" about something clearly not racist and we don't discuss how this devalues real instances of racism, we are creating an environment less safe for our minoritized students. When we say the name of a boy who is Black fifteen times for being out of his seat but don't say anything to the girl who is white for sharpening her pencil every two minutes since class started, we have to get curious and notice if we are playing into cultural stereotypes.

  • Highlight the work of diverse individuals. This basically means you'll need to supplement your textbook, but if you aren't doing that already you probably need to - so many are outdated and clunky anyways. Sarah features a scientist of the week in her college level classes. You can find some by searching "Scientist of the Week" on an amazing paleontology website she writes for called Time Scavengers!

  • Connect with inspiring mentors. When we see people like us succeed, we are more likely to feel part of a community that can succeed. Go to a science museum and talk to a science educator who seems cool - whether it's because they have a pin on for your favorite comic character or because they look similar to you in some way or because they're just so excited. Look on a college's website for professor's in a field of interest (most have pictures and information on what a person studies), send an email. Read books about different scientists.

  • Make it meaningful. Invite students to ask questions and, as much as possible, focus your teaching around these questions. One way to prompt this question-generating is to start a year/semester/unit with artifacts (articles, fossils, diagrams of inventions, designs of farm fields, tools used in the field, before and after pictures of disasters or disease) around your space. Learners visit each item and simply list every question they can think of related to it. Use these questions again and again throughout the year. This is kind of like a KWL chart for the year. Try a project that can be used as a hook for the whole semester that challenges learners to connect with the material in a way that interests them.

  • Use effective teaching strategies. When we have a student with a label, we often modify our instruction for that student. If we have a lot of English language learners, we may spend time practicing how to say and use words, we may use total physical response methods to help them remember words, and more. If we know we have students who struggle with attention, we may give brain breaks. Students who are identified as gifted may get to be pulled to do awesome projects in small groups. What if EVERY student got to do an exciting project in a small group? Often, the strategies that work for students with a specific label also enhance learning for ALL students. Find what works for you and your students and don't share great teaching only with a pocket of students.

What will you do this week to spark some joy for science learning? Heat an ice cube and watch the water cycle, plant a seed, choose a question to answer, read a book about a scientist, start a list of things you want to know. Share using #watchwonderbloom!

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