Science Educator Arthur Eisenkraft
Against the chaotic and tragic backdrop of the Vietnam War, Arthur Eisenkraft knew he was born to teach. A newly-minted graduate of SUNY Stony Brook, his odyssey began in Nepal as member of the Peace Corps in 1971.
When he returned home he spent the next 25 years teaching high school physics and was a science coordinator for grades 6-12. When asked by a student reporter several years ago why he loves teaching, Eisenkraft replied, “Perhaps it is hard to explain. It’s just so many things; it’s my whole being.”
Since his 2004 appointment as director of the UMass Boston Center of Science and Math in Context, Eisenkraft has developed and led a series of workshops to assist UMass Boston science and math professors in aligning their teaching with the existing knowledge on how people learn.
Early in his career, he thought telling students about physics and observational learning was enough for his students to achieve, but as he reflected more on his teaching methods, read the research literature, and discussed teaching with others, he realized his students could become better learners if he could listen intently to their reasoning and help them reflect on their thinking.
“One pivotal moment in my teaching occurred when I realized that students do not want to give the wrong answer,” Eisenkraft says. “I began to understand that their wrong answer was plausible to them and it was my responsibility to listen to how they arrived at this way of looking at the science content and the world."
Eisenkraft began exploring his students’ thought and logic to help him in guiding their learning. It also radically changed the quality of questions he asked students. No longer did he ask questions to which he knew the answers. No longer did he ask questions the answers to which would lead him to respond, “That’s wrong.” Instead, he asked questions about how they view the phenomenon, what evidence did they have for their conclusion, and whether there are alternative views that would be acceptable to them.
From 1991 to 1999, Eisenkraft served as both editor and project manager of the National Science Foundation (NSF) supported Active Physics curriculum project initiated by the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Institute of Physics, and the American Physical Society to increase the percentage of students studying physics. He led all aspects of the Active Physics project.
“The creation of Active Physics required organizing hundreds of teachers and thousands of students as we wrote, pilot tested, rewrote, field tested, and rewrote the curriculum again,” he recalls.
Following the success of Active Physics (now in its 3rd edition), Eisenkraft created Active Chemistry with the support of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers as well as the NSF. Together, Active Physics and Active Chemistry have contributed to a rise in science enrollments nationwide and, for the first time, provided high-quality, laboratory-based science programs to high schools in large urban areas, such as Louisville, Los Angeles, San Diego, and now Boston.