Ravit Golan Duncan Sets Her Sights on Science Education

RAvit Golan Duncan
Ravit Golan Duncan, assistant professor of education and biology at Rutgers University
Photo by Jennifer Rowsell
Ravit Golan Duncan (PhD05) started her education career training Israeli soldiers, but now she's arming college students with the tools they need to teach science.

Born in Israel, Duncan had her first taste of teaching during a two-year mandatory stint in the Israeli army, when she was teaching army courses to soldiers. Afterward, with a biology degree from Hebrew University she intended to be a biologist, but when working in a lab didn't suit her, she recalled her army teaching experiences. "I knew I loved teaching and knew I loved biology," she says. Now she is an assistant professor of education and biology at Rutgers University.

Duncan, who also lived in South Africa, came to the United States to pursue a master's in molecular biology at the University of Illinois-Chicago. That is where another life-changing moment occurred. SESP professor Louis Gomez came to talk, and his descriptions of going into classrooms, using technology and developing curriculum inspired her. Northwestern's Learning Sciences program was the only doctoral program she applied to.

She entered the program with a goal of improving biology education, and her dissertation focused on student reasoning in molecular genetics — "what it takes to learn genetics and where the problems are." Once she understood the cognition, she and a team of Chicago teachers designed a five-week high school genetics course, using the project-based approach that she advocates. "It was very intense work, really rewarding," she says. Then her doctoral studies ended at a fever pitch since during her final year she was immersed in having a new baby, defending her dissertation and searching for an academic job all at once.

Duncan sees SESP's Learning Sciences program as cutting-edge and predicts that other universities will start programs modeled after it. "How lucky we are to have great thinkers!" she says. She has high praise for her mentors at SESP, citing Bruce Sherin for helping her understand cognition, Danny Edelson for teaching her about design and Brian Reiser for "bringing it all together" in the context of real-world classrooms. Another asset of the Learning Sciences program is its small size and opportunities for interaction, she says. "The cutting-edge research, the people, the sense of community — these all make it a very productive place to be a graduate student."

At Rutgers, Duncan teaches a series of three methods courses in education to prospective teachers. Her goal is "getting teachers to understand inquiry project-based science and — design instruction to teach it." She stresses the importance of first understanding cognition before designing software and curriculum. "Northwestern is very good at that," she says.

Teacher education has the power to remedy some of what ails science education, according to Duncan. In her education courses her approach is to model good teaching, give students the necessary tools (such as the inquiry approach) and improve their subject matter knowledge. In ten years, she envisions her students being "major agents of change."

Research is also on her agenda at Rutgers. Duncan looks forward to her upcoming study of how students' understanding of subject matter affects their understanding of the nature of science. Science "is tentative and evolving, not hard and fast facts," she explains.

Like her initial interest in education, Duncan's passion for science can also be traced back to Israel. There as a child she read and reread a beloved set of Hebrew books about plants and animals, she relished nature and she yearned to become a veterinarian. Still an animal and nature lover, Duncan now contents herself with an aquarium in her office and four ferrets and a dog at home.
By Marilyn Sherman