Science Teachers Group Announces New Leader

By Erik W. Robelen — February 07, 2013 5 min read
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The newly named executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, David L. Evans, brings a diverse resume to his post at the 60,000-member organization, including stints as the undersecretary of science at the Smithsonian Institution, a high-ranking NOAA official, an academic, and—for three years—a high school math teacher.

Evans, who begins work today at the NSTA, was most recently the director of the Center for Sustainability: Earth, Energy, and Climate at Noblis Inc., in Falls Church, Va. At that nonprofit organization, his work has included helping federal, state, and local governments develop strategies to adapt to climate change.

“He is a prominent scientist and a distinguished and visionary leader who will guide the association’s future course and continue to establish NSTA as a leader in STEM education,” NSTA President Karen Ostlund said in a press release issued yesterday to announce the new leader.

The decision to hire Evans, 66, comes after former executive director Francis Eberle was dismissed by the NSTA board last spring with virtually no explanation. That action apparently caught by surprise many former NSTA board members and other educators active in the association.

Since then, former Executive Director Gerald Wheeler had returned to serve as interim chief while the NSTA conducted a national search for Eberle’s replacement.

The leadership change comes at an important moment for science education, as an effort to develop common standards for science across states is close to completion. And if there’s one consistent thing I’ve heard about the Next Generation Science Standards, it’s that teachers are going to need a lot of help adjusting to the expectations they hold for students and educators.

‘Hidden in My Resume’

I spoke today with Evans, who said his high level of interest and engagement in K-12 education might not be immediately obvious from his career.

“It’s probably hidden in my resume, but I have always been interested in science education,” he told me.

His K-12 classroom experience came with three years of teaching math at a public high school in Media, Pa. He taught a lot of different math classes, including algebra, geometry, and “a very low-level, hands-on remedial [math] class.”

Evans went on to earn a Ph.D. in oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and then spent “the better part of 15 years” in academia, he said. (His 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Kennedy, was a major influence in getting Evans to consider college. “She laid out my future,” he said, joking that “you never argue with Mrs. Kennedy.” In fact, Evans said he was the first in his family to earn a four-year degree.)

Evans’ exposure to education continued with his senior post job at NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “After getting to Washington, at NOAA, I was involved in education programs in all parts of [the organization], promoting the public understanding of science,” he told me.

Evans then spent about five years at the Smithsonian Institution, where his responsibilities included directing research and education activities, strategic planning, outreach, fundraising, and hiring for the Natural History Museum, Air and Space Museum, National Zoo, and National Science Resources Center, among other entities.

The Smithsonian job, Evans said, helped him to better understand and appreciate the value of learning in “informal” settings (e.g. museums and other settings outside the classroom), and to better appreciate “the critical importance of public understanding of science.”

His fundraising responsibilities also were helpful preparation for his new position at the NSTA. “I don’t think this whole [NSTA] agenda is going to be accomplished on individual member dues,” he said. “I got some pretty good fundraising training at the Smithsonian.”

The NSTA press release offers some further highlights of Evans’ science credentials. It notes that he has testified before Congress repeatedly on ocean and climate issues, is a reviewer for professional journals including Science, and has served on panels convened by the National Science Foundation (whose leader Subra Suresh just announced plans to step down), NOAA, and NASA.

Science Standards

Evans described the forthcoming Next Generation Science Standards as a “huge” challenge and opportunity for the NSTA, saying the organization is well positioned to be a leader in helping teachers understand and implement the new standards. (The NSTA is one of the “partners” working with 26 states to develop the common standards.)

Although Evans was quick to say he has not been personally involved in the development of those standards, he generally likes the direction they’re headed in and believes they hold great potential for rethinking science education in the United States.

“The reduced [science] content, increased depth, [emphasis on] the scientific process, if you will, the explicit inclusion of engineering practices, these are huge in an education or pedagogical sense,” he said. “So that is a huge deal.” Evans said he’s especially pleased to see a strong emphasis on “the process part, how does science work, what does it mean to collect evidence, to make an evidence-based decision.”

Evans made clear that he’s determined to ensure that NSTA remains relevant and is seen as a leader in science education.

“All membership organizations have been under a lot of stress in the last few years,” he said, amid the financial squeeze of the recession and declining membership figures at some leading groups. (He said he was not able to cite details on where the NSTA stands in this regard, but that the organization “is holding its own.”)

Technological advances also continue to pose challenges to organizations like the NSTA. “Why should you belong to an organization when you get it all free from the Web?” he said. “We really need to explore in the current context what is the information, the tools, the delivery mechanism” to help science teachers. “We need to understand where the world is going.”

A top priority, he said, was “working with the science teaching and learning community in a really fundamental way to understand what the needs are in a world that is changing by more than just those [science] standards.”

And he suggests that his “executive skills and management expertise” will prove vital assets in leading the NSTA and navigating its future.

But on his first day at the NSTA office in Arlington, Va., he was only beginning to learn the ropes.

“Today is my first official day,” he told me in our phone conversation this morning, just three hours into the job. “I got the keys to the building, figured out how to use the coffee machine.”

He’ll no doubt need plenty more coffee in coming days.

Photo of David L. Evans provided by the NSTA.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.