West receives accolades for efforts to improve science classroom safety By M. Yvonne Taylor, University Marketing
Visit Dr. Sandra West Moody’s office and you might be invited to browse through books about bugs and beetles, inspect a dead bat or even fondle a set of her grandmother’s false teeth.
Well, explains the associate professor of biology, when her grandmother passed away and her family didn’t know what to do with them, she offered to take them, because “I was sure I could use them in class here. There are lessons everywhere. Every moment is full of teachables.”
It’s that kind of outside-the-box thinking that has defined West’s life, career and research, and it’s earned her numerous awards and grants too. In the past three years alone, she was the recipient of the American Association of Science Fellow award and the Texas Science Teachers Association award for Leadership.
The latest honor is the 2009 Outstanding Leader in National Science Education award, given by the National Science Education Leadership Association. West was honored for her research about safety in K-12 science classrooms and labs — research that has affected changes in standards and policy for science classrooms all across Texas and the United States.
“We are the only state in the nation with any kind of longitudinal data on safety in the classroom,” explains West. “And it all started with my questions in 1986.”
Back in ’86, West was a department chair and science teacher at Madison High School in San Antonio. At the time, the newly written Texas Hazardous Communications Act required science teachers to follow specific guidelines regarding safety. “I read the guidelines and asked, ‘So what am I supposed to do?’ And nobody had an answer,” West says. “So I just started asking questions and trying to find answers.”
Later that year, her inquisitiveness and desire to further challenge herself led her to enter a PhD program in science education. Says West, “Another science teacher and friend of mine asked, “’Sandra, why don’t we get PhDs?’ My last child had left the house, and I thought a PhD would be so much fun.” So, in her mid-40s, she and that friend, Dr. Carolyn Pesthy, who also is now a biology senior lecturer at Texas State, earned their PhDs together in five years, while teaching high school at the same time.
“One of the nice things about graduate school is getting to choose what you want to do,” says West. So she decided to research safety in the science classroom to help answer some of those questions that no one else could.
And she decided to start a safety checklist, which eventually became part of a book, NSTA Guide to Planning School Science Facilities, co-written by West and published by the National Science Teachers Association.
In 1990, the year West began teaching at Texas State, her concerns about safety standards in science classrooms prompted her to start attending State Board of Education meetings in Austin. She began asking questions, finally speaking to the Texas Education Agency’s architect of new facility standards.
“I asked if he knew that if there’s less than 41 square feet of space per student in a lab, you get an increase in accident rate?” West explains. And though he had heard that information before, he wanted data to back it up. “He asked if I could produce a citation,” says West, “and I said, ‘You bet I can.’”
When West began to bring research to the table, the standards were upgraded. “One of the things I’ve been able to do is to get safety standards included in the requirements for new or renovated facilities. We are the only state that has such standards,” she explains. “And if I had not persevered, we would not have them in there today.”
Spending any amount of time with West not only will provide a lesson on safety standards, but also a discussion about higher standards. The professor, a first-generation college student, says that her parents always held her to very high standards, and she’s continued to seek them for herself, her students and fellow teachers ever since.
“My parents were very hardworking and owned a small business selling oil field supplies,” she explains. “There were sayings all over the walls depicting their work ethic, such as ‘There are no can’ts in the oil field,’ and ‘You see a problem, go figure out how to solve it.’
“Asking yourself, ‘OK, how can I make this work? How can I solve this?’” adds West, with a twinkle in her eye, “that’s kind of fun.”
A Natural Teacher
West’s insatiable curiosity, determination to find solutions and desire to share what she’s learned for the betterment of society make her a natural teacher. She’s taught every age group imaginable — Montessori for eight years, middle school for two and high school for 16. In her role in science education at Texas State, she’s able to draw upon all of her experiences as she teaches teachers.
“I see my role here as training the future of the franchise — the next generation of science education leaders,” she explains. “I have a unique job in that I have to know the science, and I have to know the pedagogy.” She teaches science to middle school and secondary teachers and science methods courses to pre-certified teachers.
She’s also created a new model of instruction called correlated science and math, based on a Japanese collaborative lesson-planning model. In 2004, it earned West a $300,000 federal grant to develop a teacher-training module for underprepared middle school math and science teachers in high-need schools. She teaches those courses during the summers.
And as with everything she does, she pushes for high standards. Says graduate student Melissa Duran, “Dr. West has high expectations of her students. She has stretched me in so many different ways that I have become someone that I never thought I could be. I could not imagine being a teacher without her on my side.”
Explains West, “I feel it’s my job to mentor, to train teachers, to set high standards for them as professionals with their own standards, not just what’s required of them.” Such high standards, according to West, are the reason Texas State’s science education department produces so many STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teachers who have master’s degrees. “People who want to teach can get teaching certification almost anywhere,” explains West, “but if they want to teach for excellence, they join our program.
“You do the best because it’s the thing to do,” she states, just before she enthusiastically offers a visitor to her office a tour of a bat cave in the Hill Country.
Looks like she’s spotted yet another teachable moment.