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PROFILE: Master’s Candidate Makes Teaching A Learning Experience

Dean Whitfield’s research project was presented at a prestigious international meeting of educators in Montreal, Canada.

Date: 7/18/2005 8:00:00 AM
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos By: Dottie Stover
UC ingot Dean Whitfield says he had as many questions as his freshmen and sophomore high school students had when he started his year-long teacher internship experience as part of his University of Cincinnati preparation to become a science teacher.

Dean Whitfield
Dean Whitfield at the Teachers College

His specialty, science, came naturally. He knew his subject material. But with no experience in front of a classroom, how was he going to help his students become as excited about science as he was? He knew he had to make a connection before he brought science into the picture, and as it turns out, he was able to make that connection through pictures, as his students became novice science photographers.

“I needed to quickly gain some insight about the students’ perceptions about science, and then I needed to figure out how to draw them out a little bit, so that when we turned to the book, I could show them why we should be talking about this and why it’s interesting.” Whitfield says. “I also needed to find the expectations on the students’ part in a very unobtrusive manner.”

Whitfield didn’t think that assigning students an essay was the answer. He figured that idea might even throw up more barriers if a student struggled with writing. So instead, he used a research tool known as Photovoice, a model initially developed by a research team to explore the concerns of labor and health issues of women in China.

Whitfield assigned his students to photograph science in their everyday lives. Then, the photos were discussed in the classroom.

Geared up with disposable cameras, the students were assigned three different “shoot” locations: in and around their school, inside their homes, and outside of their homes. For their last two pictures, Whitfield told the students they could photograph anything that would make them think of science.

Dean Whitfield

Once the photo shoots were complete, the students made posters with brief descriptions of how their pictures demonstrated science. The photo presentations would then further classroom discussion about science and its applications.

“I’d say two-thirds of the photos would portray house plants, trees or pets,” Whitfield says. “But there were some photos that were really unique and had a lot of depth, like a basketball moving through the air. The way the student described it, he said he was showing gravity, and the fact that he could make that parallel demonstrated to me that he was thinking about a lot more than just taking a picture of a basketball.”

As the class progressed, pictures of laundry detergent granules would evolve into a discussion about atoms. “Through Photovoice, we made it okay that if you can’t really put something into words, you can make a picture of it. As scientists, we do that all the time as we draw a diagram and then talk about the diagram.

“Photovoice served as an extension of the classroom into my students’ lives,” Whitfield concludes. “It enabled them to participate in the development of instruction while allowing me to establish a baseline understanding with my students.”

Whitfield’s research project has generated international attention. He presented his study last April at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Montreal, Canada. Funding for his research was supported by a $750 research mentoring grant from the Office of the Dean of the College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services. The faculty mentor on the research project, Helen Meyer, also contributed support from a $5,000 faculty research support grant that she was awarded from the University Research Council in 2004.

Whitfield will complete his master’s degree at UC in August, the same month that he’s getting married to Elizabeth Billings, a nursing student at Johns Hopkins University. The couple will then move to Baltimore, where Whitfield has already made a verbal commitment to a teaching position. Come fall, he says he’ll be meeting another classroom full of unfamiliar faces, and he’ll need to quickly gauge their grasp of science. “Photovoice will again be an unobtrusive means to guide my instruction and apply their ideas to lessons throughout the year,” he says. “Another group of students will be given a voice in their own instruction.”

“Dean and I will continue our research next year while he is in Baltimore,” says his faculty mentor on the project, Helen Meyer, a UC assistant professor of curriculum and instruction. “Having master’s degree students engaged in and presenting their research at international conferences speaks to the quality of students that we have in the UC education program.”

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