PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Robert Kolvoord

What works: Observations from the field

Robert Kolvoord

Bob Kolvoord is Professor of Integrated Science and Technology at James Madison University.

Faculty for the 21st Century members reflect on their experience in making a difference for their students and for the communities of which they are a part.

If a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab—the environment in which you work with students—what impression would s/he leave with?

The environment I work in is constantly changing, as much of my teaching takes place with both high school and college students in a variety of settings. Thus, the most important environment is not a physical one, but an affective one. The impression of a visitor would be one of a group of learners engaged in a particular task or exploration. They're both mastering the material at hand and having some fun; it is noisy and sometimes chaotic, but there is an underlying sense of concentration. It is also an environment where there is technology at hand, but the technology is being used to solve a problem, not just for the learning of particular technology skills.

What brought you to an interest in “advancing the frontiers of education” and to connecting your research to that work?

I felt that research alone gave me less and less satisfaction. I was looking for a way to connect my research and have an impact on more than the dozen or so experts in the world in my particular narrow sub- discipline. I then started to migrate my own work to focus on how to use the technical tools with which I was acquainted (data visualization, geospatial technologies, and simulation and modeling) to focus on applying them to teaching and learning in both pre- college and college classrooms. This change has provided a great deal of satisfaction as well as a challenging new set of problems to explore and try to solve.

Were there crises in doing this? What made you persevere?

In the pursuit of a research program, you have a great deal of control and can set a variety of boundary conditions. One challenge of interdisciplinary work is that the amount you don't know seems to scale exponentially as the number of related disciplines increases.

It can be very hard to feel comfortable in this setting after laboring for years to be expert in a particular area. Also, when you start to deal with the challenges of trying to bring about change more broadly than your own classroom, you run into the sometimes rocky shoals of bureaucracies and the need to focus on the needs of others more than your own needs/desires.

I've been stymied by Information Technology support personnel who've made their systems so secure you can't do a thing with them, by teachers/faculty members/ unit leaders that don't want any change if they can't control it, and by my own failings to not engage the right stakeholders or offer a compelling enough reason for folks to move in a particular direction. However, I'm ultimately driven to push on because students need access to data visualization technologies as a vehicle to learn about STEM disciplines. If I can keep my focus on the students, it helps motivate me. In one of my projects last year, a teacher in a small city last year was able to capture the attention of his students to such an extent that they wanted to come in nights, weekends, and during a school holiday to finish their work. Helping to bring something like this about will help motivate me for years to come. A little success goes a long, long way.

What connections have been of most value in doing this?

It has been a tremendous help to find colleagues that have similar experiences and can share success and commiserate when success is not in the cards. PKAL and the F21 network has been a great aid in this regard. It has offered a sounding board and a place to test ideas and possibilities. Much of my work forces me to focus on systemic change and the opportunity to connect with individuals that work at all different levels of educational organizations has been of considerable value. The work that I do doesn't connect to an obvious disciplinary society or group, so I have had to look to other venues. One of the great challenges in doing interdisciplinary work is finding/building communities of interest/practice, since they often don't exist in the usual sense. Too often interdisciplinary is more a desired ideal than a realized state.

What kind of institutional culture needs to be in place to nurture careers of faculty actively seeking to integrate their research and teaching?

We have to find a way to help disciplinary faculty appreciate and value both interdisciplinary work and the challenge of preparing future teachers. We have sadly abrogated much of our responsibility in this regard and then complained about the challenges of K-12 education. Institutions that have found ways to both value traditional and non-traditional faculty work and to appreciate scholarship in the full and nuanced sense of Boyer have had the best success in realizing the potential of high-quality STEM education. The challenge is that each of us bears a leadership burden in this regard and it has been too easy to look to those with the formal title/position of leader to resolve this challenge. The rank and file faculty are the key to this challenge and disciplinary "purity" has to take a back seat to our broader obligations to society and the next generation of students.