UMass Boston

COSMIC’s Dr. Tejaswini Dalvi Brings Teacher-Collaborators and Community Partners Together for Sense-Making Science and Engineering

01/05/2023| CEHD

The Center of Science and Math in Context’s (COSMIC) Dr. Tejaswini Dalvi celebrates humanity in engineering and science. In her office, one wall is papered with student posters about mathematics education. Opposite these, a bookshelf holds handmade engineering projects created with foam cups, paper towel rolls, and colored paper, which Dalvi regularly takes down for play and demonstration. On a far door, Dalvi has attached a set of cascading ramps, simple foam tubes, which she says she playfully invites young visitors to “fix” for her. Dalvi bustles about preparing boxes of pipe cleaners and rolls of tape. “Did you check the frequency?” She calls out to a colleague: “I need to make sure it’s working with my ping-pong ball.”

Such is the world of science and engineering education that Dalvi inhabits. COSMIC brings together the College of Education and Human Development and the College of Science and Mathematics in a shared mission to "advance high-quality teaching and learning in science and math for all students at K-12, undergraduate, and graduate levels." On this day, she is preparing materials for ConnecTions in the Making: Elementary Students, Teachers, and STEM Professionals Integrating Science and Engineering to Design Community Solutions, a five-year grant sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The project links universities, teacher-collaborators, and community partners in Boston and Marlborough to address local problems.

Over five years, the research team has worked with teacher collaborators and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and the Sudbury Valley Trustees to develop curriculum units where students create and test solutions for environmental engineering challenges close to home. “Rather than giving [students] cooked-up experiences,” Dalvi explains, “if they can see themselves as changemakers, that's huge. They see themselves as able changemakers who can impact their community.” Dalvi emphasizes, “It's identity building for them. ‘I can do engineering. I can apply math. I can apply science and see my creativity getting a chance.’”

The iterative nature of engineering, Dalvi says, is particularly powerful. It teaches students to embrace “failure” as a necessary component of learning and creating. Dalvi recounts one student’s comments to a peer at the end of the project: “‘Dude, it's okay, you want to fail… because otherwise, how would you know what's the best material here?’”

Dalvi, who earned her Ph.D. in theoretical condensed matter physics, says she discovered education research as a professor. Newly graduated and highly trained in her field, Dalvi began teaching undergraduate physics. Like many new teachers, she struggled. She found mentors and delved into the research on learning science. “I started paying attention to the students. ‘Oh wait, if they don’t get it, it's probably because of me. I am definitely doing something wrong… how do I need to be a teacher?’”

Dalvi brought her scientific curiosity to the nature of learning itself. She says, “I realized I can never deliver something. I cannot give my students a set of facts and some information and think my job here is done. I have to get them to think, and in order to get them to think, I need to understand what they know, where they are, and then accordingly craft my teaching.”

Dalvi now describes her work as “facilitating” in the classroom. She says her role is necessarily cooperative and respectful. “My teachers bring in so much energy, so much knowledge. Nobody knows the students as much as [teachers] do,” she says. “In the way you respect students,” she says, “in a similar way, listen to your teachers.” As a co-PI on Science Content and Engineering Thinking in the Elementary Classroom, Dalvi works with her teacher-collaborators through professional and curriculum development. “Our approach for [professional development] is to let the teachers engage as engineers. We provide them with the unit, but then we can sit with them and let them take the lead on how they want to implement these in their classrooms.”

Dalvi demonstrates an “ArtBot” drawing machine made by a STEM teacher. It is comprised of three markers taped to the side of a cup. They form a tripod, with a simple circuit and battery on top. When the circuit is complete, the bot bumbles across a sheet of paper, leaving a multi-colored trail. Dalvi emphasizes the significance of using everyday materials in contrast to pre-made kits. “Start with things that everybody is comfortable using,” she says. “If I'm going to bring a video kit, a Lego video kit, it's expensive,” she explains. “The teacher is worried…So instead of that, if I have a paper cup, you can do whatever you want with the paper cup, and I'm fine.”

Dalvi’s college teaching, research, and time in the classroom inform each other and feed her curiosity. She has a long-standing arrangement with her teacher-collaborator, visiting the classroom weekly. In addition to elementary school students, Dalvi works with middle and high school students. She is co-Pi for Nano-Makerspace to Make and Explore in the World of the Small. In the summer, Dalvi runs an education engineering internship program for high school students through UMass Boston. They engage in hands-on, problem-solving science and engineering challenges in the first half of the program and then mentor younger students in the second portion.

Dalvi’s research extends to the emotional aspects of learning as well. “You cannot take away the emotion from learning. In fact, I feel it is all the more for science and math,” says Dalvi. “I often find, if I'm happy, if I'm interested and curious, I will get to exploration.” Dalvi emphasizes that children are working on their own theories: “You will see a two-year-old in a bathtub trying to catch the water that flows out of the faucet, right? They realize this is something different. ‘I can hold a block. That's something that's solid, but the liquid, the water that's coming out, I can't hold it.’ It seems they're using their senses to figure out the two states of matter. Now, I don't mean to say ‘Oh wow, start teaching them about states of matter’…No, but can we build on these experiences because it seems that kids are naturally curious about things.”

Indeed, Dalvi’s current work with pre-service teachers emphasizes “responsive teaching” (Hammer, Goldberg, & Fargason, 2012), which she says runs counter to rote and banking approaches. “It is a facilitation strategy that will help you find alignment between the teaching and learning that is happening,” she explains. She uses the example of physics vocabulary. “As long as [students] are explaining their observations,” she says, “why do I have to use the word ‘force?’ Let them complete their idea.” She says the vocabulary can come later. “When you engage students in minds-on and hands-on ways, and you give them the space to reflect and…respond,” she says, “the way they learn is super meaningful. Then the knowledge built is there to stay.”