TU professor part of $3M grant to boost virtual teacher training

NSF grant supports preservice STEM teachers

By Cody Boteler and Rebecca Kirkman on October 28, 2020

Woman teaching in front of podium with computer
Pamela Lottero-Perdue, a professor of science and engineering education at Towson University, conducts professional education in June 2015. Lottero-Perdue is part of a multi-institution effort to use technology to prepare future STEM teachers. Photo: Lauren Castellana

When the novel coronavirus pandemic closed schools and transitioned students to remote learning, Towson University’s Pamela Lottero-Perdue, a professor of science and engineering education in the Fisher College of Science & Mathematics, had a plan. 

Lottero-Perdue, who also received a 2018 University System of Maryland (USM) Board of Regents' Faculty Award for excellence, teaches courses for future educators, where preservice teachers can get classroom experience before graduating from Towson University.

While no longer able to interact with elementary school students in person, and through the support of a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant (#1621344), those in Lottero-Perdue’s class were able to use Mursion software that simulates real-time classroom scenarios. This is the same software used in the College of Education.

“It is essential that we find ways, even in the midst of COVID, to enable future teachers to practice teaching,” Lottero-Perdue says. “It is especially important in mathematics and science education to help preservice teachers learn to engage their students in argumentation, justification and reasoning."

Now, sparked by her spring 2020 experience, Lottero-Perdue is part of a multi-institution effort to use more advanced technologies to prepare future generations of science and mathematics teachers. She’s also leveraging resources at Towson University's College of Education, including its Mursion software

Working with collaborators from Educational Testing Service (ETS), Indiana University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lottero-Perdue is a co-principal investigator on a project funded by a new grant of more than $3 million from the NSF (grant #2037983).

She will contribute to the design and study of the Online Practice Suite, a coordinated set of teaching activities that include focused practice spaces; small-group, avatar-based simulations; and virtual-reality classrooms. 

The software’s goal is to support preservice STEM teachers in developing and honing skills for facilitating argumentation-focused discussions.

The research team will work with mathematics and science teacher educators over the next three years to design, test and refine the full suite of activities. The findings will be used to understand the mechanisms that support preservice teachers’ learning within and across the OPS activities and to document an emergent set of best practices for supporting preservice teachers’ improvement over time.

Elementary and middle/secondary school mathematics and science scenarios will be developed and be accompanied by support materials to help teacher educators use the activities in their courses, both online and face to face.

Lottero-Perdue, working with Jamie Mikeska and Heather Howell, research scientists at ETS, will focus on the small-group, avatar-based simulations. These simulations employ the same Mursion technology that she used before. 

Screenshot of five student avatars in virtual classroom
With Towson University College of Education technology, seen here in a screenshot, preservice teachers can interact with digital student avatars in a virtual reality classroom environment.

Lottero-Perdue says she’s received positive feedback from students who have used the simulation technology. The simulations designed and implemented within the OPS project will enable preservice teachers to facilitate 20-minute, argumentation-focused discussion with five student avatars who will respond in real time. The student teachers will be given materials to prepare for the discussion and to be able to reflect on the experience.

This is an interdisciplinary project, incorporating participation by TU faculty in piloting the OPS during their spring and fall 2021 courses, partnership with the College of Education’s simulation coordinator Julia Brandeberry and employment of College of Fine Arts & Communication theatre arts graduate students to act as virtual students. 

Lottero-Perdue says science education may be more important now than ever.

“We’re in a time right now where science is not trusted by everyone. I am concerned about a lack of respect for evidence,” she says. “We need to, from the earliest grades onward, help children reason about science and mathematics, using evidence and justification to support their ideas.”

This story is one of several related to President Kim Schatzel’s priorities for Towson University: TU Matters to Maryland.