The importance of understanding science

Maria Varelas

Maria Varelas: helping students use science in everyday lives. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

This year, UIC honors 10 outstanding researchers with the Researcher of the Year Award, a $5,000 cash prize. Five established faculty members were named Distinguished Researchers and five early career scientists were honored as Rising Stars.

Maria Varelas
Distinguished Researcher
Social Sciences 

“Transformational” is how experts describe Maria Varelas’ approach to teaching science to elementary school students from low-income city neighborhoods.

Varelas, professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education, links science to literacy. Her work helps students understand science concepts and their use in everyday life.

Sometimes that means turning students into actors who pretend they’re molecules transforming from a solid to a liquid or gas — or forest animals, plants, sunlight and water to enact the relationships in a food web.

In a paper that the National Science Teachers Association placed on its “Research Worth Reading” list, Varelas wrote about the acting exercise: “Their bodies operated on multiple mediated levels: as material objects that moved through space, as social objects that negotiated classroom relationships and rules, and as metaphorical entities.”

Varelas said such imaginative learning leads children to relate scientific concepts to each other, engaging them in a network of ideas.

She recalled the empathy and caution that children showed when assigned roles as owls, mice or other players in a food chain.

“They were all thinking, ‘I don’t want to be eaten.’”

Varelas and the teachers she works with see that the dramatic exercises draw on children’s “own everyday funds of knowledge,” which differ among ethnic, racial, gender, linguistic and socioeconomic groups, she said.

“Kids in neighborhoods facing economic hardship are aware of haves and have-nots. Multimodal enactments of science in the classroom level, a bit, the playing field,” Varelas said.

“Not having resources doesn’t mean you don’t engage with science in meaningful ways. And so many everyday decisions rely on an understanding of science.”

Other Researchers of the Year

Natasha Devroye: Rising Star, Natural Sciences & Engineering 

Xiaoping Du: Distinguished Researcher, Basic Life Sciences 

Leon Fink: Distinguished Researcher, Humanities 

Stacie Geller: Distinguished Researcher, Clinical Sciences 

Rachel Havrelock: Rising Star, Humanities 

Seungpyo Hong: Rising Star, Basic Life Sciences

Bing Liu: Distinguished Researcher, Natural Sciences & Engineering 

Ben Superfine: Rising Star, Social Sciences 

Krista Varady: Rising Star, Clinical Sciences 

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