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May 2, 2003

Virtual lab teachers could relieve shortage

Niki Davis
by Kevin Brown
If Niki Davis is successful, Iowa high school students could study with virtual teachers for their science lab courses.

Davis, professor of educational technology and co-director of the Center for Technology in Learning and Teaching in the College of Education, is collaborating on a central resource for video and Web-based courses called the Iowa Virtual Academy.

Davis, colleagues at Iowa State and Iowa Public Television are collaborating on the academy. A $400,000 grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust supports the academy's research and development.

"There is a nationwide shortage of science teachers that is approaching crisis level in Iowa, especially for rural school districts," Davis said. "In 2002, a study showed that the shortage of qualified high school science teachers will become even more severe in Iowa in the coming decade."

Help for Iowa schools
To help meet that shortage, Davis and Dale Niederhauser, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, are researching approaches to distance education using the Iowa Communications Network (ICN). The project also will test use of the Web to provide science lab courses to high schools.

"We want the academy to be able to assist Iowa schools, especially rural districts, with courses that would not otherwise be available to their students," Davis said. "We want to support successful practice for teachers and students."

Lynette McGregor, a science educator in the biology department at Wartburg College, Waverly, and an Iowa State doctoral student, is leading the Web-based lab course, with support from Iowa State's Project Bio, an Internet-based partnership of faculty and students at ISU, community colleges and high schools focusing on biology education.

One lab unit focuses on genetics. The online course will highlight individual genetic make-up by studying the genotypes of four couples and their children using online simulations.

A second lab model will concentrate on photosynthesis. High school students will be able to manipulate variables in the process and explain a range of phenomena, including the origin and formation of fossil fuels.

"Technology also will help students understand the complexities of the course work," Davis said. "For example, students will be able to work with simulations of plants for ongoing discussion with peers and their teacher. Students also may be instructed to journal and chat online with students at other high schools by e-mail or WebCt."

Also emerging from this project is a group of master teachers and courses. Gail Wortmann, Iowa's 2001 Teacher of the Year from Ottumwa High School, and two other high school teachers will create Web-based courses during 2004.

"Wortmann will be our first master teacher on the Web," Davis said. "We need to take what exemplary teachers are doing and integrate that talent into the online environment."

Technology as a catalyst for change
Virtual education is not a new endeavor for Davis, who grew up in Ireland. She retains a chair in England as a part-time professor of educational technology for the department of mathematics, science and technology in The Institute of Education, University of London. She also is president of the international Society of Information Technology in Teacher Education.

Davis came to Iowa State in 2000 from the University of Exeter in England, where she received a personal chair in educational telematics (information and communications technology). Before getting into education, she was managing director for a small exporting business in Ireland with her husband.

Entering teaching with a focus on technology was a natural for Davis, who believes diversity and international perspectives are vital to a well-rounded education.

"I want to help the educational systems change," Davis said. "And, technology is a catalyst to change. It is all about bringing more international perspective and educating for mutual understanding. Coming to Iowa State allows me to build this dream from both sides of the Atlantic."

But Davis isn't opposed to a little personal peace, either. When not on the job or flying across "the big pond," she is at home on 19 acres of oak trees near the Skunk River where she enjoys spending time cross-country skiing with husband Tim, and son Arthur, who will enroll at ISU in the fall.

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Published by: University Relations,
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