Mentors of Distinction
Bonnie Shapiro has made a career out of learning how we learn, and teaching teachers all about it. Her ideas have attracted the attention of educators from Calgary to Stockholm. Local teachers who have put the University of Calgary education professor’s theories to the test say Bonnie is spot on.
An excellent teacher needs to know what it means to encourage another human being.
While students must take on the responsibility of learning, she says that teachers should encourage students to pursue what deeply interests them. Presumably everyone wants to make sense of the world, each in his or her own way. Bonnie’s research supports her hypothesis that students are successful learners when teachers provide and allow for different ways of learning.
Much of Bonnie’s own early learning about science took place in the basement of her family’s Seattle, Washington home. Together with her brother, the two conducted experiments and developed black and white photos in a makeshift darkroom. Although no one in the family had a career in the sciences, Bonnie says “Nature was my greatest mentor.”
In grade school, some of her best teachers inspired in Bonnie the sense that she too, would like to teach. Her mathematics teacher, George Mead, was so effective in teaching the foundation of mathematics, that after three years in his class, Bonnie felt that there was no math problem she couldn’t solve. When Bonnie graduated from high school and learned that her highest subject matter aptitude was physics, she applied for a National Science Foundation physics program and was accepted.
After marrying a Montrealer, Bonnie immigrated to Canada. True to her passions, in 1987, she was granted her PhD in Science Education from the University of Alberta. Since then, Bonnie has called Calgary home.
When Bonnie decided to study students’ conceptions of phenomenon, such as light, she began several case studies. In her research, she found out what each student already knew and thought about the concept of light. Each child also had a particular orientation, or view about science learning. Some students feared science class. Different children had different beliefs about the nature of science and the best way to learn it. Out of this work Bonnie wrote what was to be an award-winning book, What Children Bring to Light: A Constructivist Perspective On Children’s Learning in Science .
Science learning is not just an intellectual exercise, but also a psychological, emotional, cultural and social experience.
For students who like to validate their knowledge by personal experience, science can be a tricky subject. Bonnie feels that girls, in particular, need ever more opportunities to develop a sense that they can pursue the questions that interest them. Many situations used in physics problems, for example, come from the typical boy’s experience, which gives girls the message “this is not a girl-thing!”
The international community was intrigued with Bonnie’s long-term studies with students, and in 2001 the Swedish Government and Universities named her Distinguished International Scholar and had her present her work to a national meeting of science educators. Also in 2001, the Alberta Teachers Association honored Bonnie with their lifetime achievement award, Citation for distinguished service in acknowledgement of 25 years in teacher education and professional development in the Province of Alberta. In 2004, she received the University of Calgary’s Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award for Achievements in Research and Teaching. Among other accolades, she has also been twice nominated for a graduate teaching award.
Bonnie’s research with the individuals featured in What Children Bring to Light . . . continues. She wants to know how the then children, now parents’ and teachers’ thinking has changed. One woman asked her, “are you going to keep asking us about our ideas in science when we’re like...forty?” Bonnie’s answer: of course!