Q & A with Janelle Johnson, Associate Professor of Teacher Education at MSU Denver
Janelle Johnson is a STEM equity expert who served as PI for an NSF ITEST award, with collaborators Metropolitan State University of Denver, Community College of Denver and GLOBE. The following are excerpts from an interview in September 2020. The extended interview and more about the Multi STEM project here.
GLOBE Partner Forum: In May, you contributed to NSF’s STEM For All Video Showcase based upon a three year ITEST grant whose motivation was broadening access to STEM pathways. As PI for the grant, can you describe the main components of this collaborative project?
Janelle Johnson: The way that we conceptualized the main components of the work were, doing a lot of professional development with both pre-service and in-service teachers, [with] a very strong thread of student research throughout, facilitating students at the K-16 level.
With the professional development we are encouraging teachers to do research with their students and then support them through faculty and undergraduate visits to the schools. [This involves] collecting GLOBE data, doing the data analysis, producing research posters, and then presenting the research publicly.
GPF: The Multi STEM project has created a community of scientists, teacher educators, student research assistants, and teachers with the aim of opening up STEM opportunities to students who don’t see themselves as future scientists or even recognizing the relevance of science to their lives. Can you elaborate on the “focal student” approach central to engaging these students?
JJ: It's common for teachers to plan for the middle or average or typical student. But when we're thinking about gaps in achievement that really represent opportunity gaps, we want to learn from the students who have been less engaged with science, who have had less opportunities to do summer camps, or after school programs, or really get excited or see themselves in science. If we consider those students as a reflection and planning tool, they can help us really plan more inclusive instruction that engages all of our students. We have been very mindful about not using deficit framing of students that we're thinking of as focal students. Sometimes these are students who would be categorized as, for example, at risk, or lower achievers, or special needs students.
And these are students who haven't necessarily had those hands-on experiences. They tend to get channeled into the drill-and-kill version of science, which isn't going to get anybody excited about it, let alone someone who's had, previously, negative experiences. If we can help teachers engage their focal students more often in the hands-on science, that can also contribute to opening up those STEM pathways.
GPF: You’ve shared approaches to STEM equity to many in the GLOBE community, including at Train the Trainer Bootcamps. How did you first become involved with STEM equity work?
JJ: My teacher preparation was as an English as a second language teacher. Prior to that though, I was actually a geology major, and starting in high school I worked as a math tutor. I learned to teach English as a second language with, especially, doing hands-on math and science. Because when students are engaging with plants, animals, making observations, collecting data, it's more concrete than learning about the language. You're actually doing activities. And so it offers context that supports language acquisition. So for me, doing STEM and doing equity based pedagogy was always connected.
My dissertation was on professional development with teachers in Guatemala and Mexico, and then I was working with a couple different Master's programs for teachers doing STEM research and that had an equity lens. I got my first teaching job in Guatemala, and I started doing workshops with teachers [during] my first year teaching, which would be so unusual in the US. But I was doing workshops called Spunky Science with local teachers there, and I was doing that kind of hands-on language-based science with teachers. It's hard for me to separate STEM and equity. Later, I worked at the Equity Assistance Center as a STEM equity specialist in its Denver office. So that's been a thread throughout my career. Then the tenure track position I currently hold had STEM equity in the position description, so it was an excellent match.
This material is based on work supported by the NSF under grant number 1615193.
News origin: United States of America