Rider professor connects with career changers through shared life experiences

Dr. Andrea Drewes is a new assistant professor in the Department of Graduate Education, Leadership, and Counseling
Keith Fernbach

Dr. Andrea Drewes, who came to Rider in the fall of 2019 as an assistant professor in the Department of Graduate Education, Leadership, and Counseling, first realized she had an aptitude for teaching science back when she was a student at Hunterdon Central High School.

“I always loved the problem-solving approach that we take in science, and how we can try to satisfy our curiosity about nature and the world around us,” she recalls. “I have specific memories of being in upper-level science courses and being about to find different models or descriptions to help my peers with what we were learning. The teacher was doing a great job, but explaining things one way doesn’t necessarily meet the needs of all the students in the classroom, and I found myself being able to give parallel explanations.”

She began her undergraduate education at Brandeis University. However, it didn’t offer a science education major at that time, so when she became certain that a career as a science teacher was for her, she transferred to the University of Delaware, where she earned her degree in chemistry education, with a minor in biology and East Asian studies.

She spent the next five years teaching middle school science in Ocean City, Md., and during this time she took a temporary leave to work for an environmental group on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. “I would go into local classrooms and help teachers and students to get a better understanding of their natural environment,” she says, “because many of them, even while they walked by these beautiful beaches and amazing mangrove forests, didn’t really understand them or appreciate the complex ecosystems surrounding us.”

This experience would have a career-changing impact on her. “I returned home and went back to teaching at the same middle school, but it made me realize that I loved working with other teachers to help their students see that science isn’t scary.  It can be very manageable, fun, and engaging for teachers and learners alike.”

This led her to take a job as Coordinator of Teacher Professional Development with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, the organization that manages the Bronx Zoo. “I worked with local teachers ranging from kindergarten through high school, who would come to the zoo for professional development. Through our Online Teacher Academy, I also worked with teachers virtually from around the world. Our goal was to really infuse conservation messages more effectively into their classrooms through science instruction.”

During this time, she also began doing research into the impact the zoo’s programming was having on teachers and their beliefs about the value of science in their classrooms.

“I realized that I really wanted to enhance my own ability to conduct meaningful educational research,” she says. So, she went back to the University of Delaware, where she earned her doctorate in learning sciences, which focuses on the science behind how we learn and how that knowledge can be used to improve education.

While she was in her doctoral program, the subject of climate change became a major focus of her work. She was involved with a National Science Foundation grant called MADE CLEAR (Maryland and Delaware Climate Change Education, Assessment, and Research). Through this project, she helped to design and implement climate change professional development for teachers to assist them with integrating this scientifically and socially complex topic into their science curriculum.

Her dissertation focused on climate change teaching.

“I investigated how science teachers come to identify as a teacher of climate change,” she says. “This started seven or eight years ago, when it was still fairly controversial to include the topic in the classroom, so I sought a better understanding of their motivations and reasoning for choosing this topic to include in their science instruction.”

At Rider, Dr. Drewes is working with post-baccalaureate students looking to earn a teacher certification or a Master of Arts in Teaching degree.

She finds that it is particularly rewarding to be teaching career changers.

“Because I have such a wide, varied life experience in and out of the classroom, I really appreciate the fact that they want to use their backgrounds and the unique experiences that they’ve had and bring that to their students."

Q&A with Dr. Drewes:

What professional achievement are you most proud of?

I’m very excited that my co-editor and I will be having a book coming out very soon, probably in early 2020, titled Teaching Climate Change in the United States. We’ve sourced stories from across the nation about what climate change education looks like in very disparate parts of the country. The book looks into some of the challenges that we’re still experiencing and what are some of the successes that we’re having. It’s not just for educational researchers. Hopefully it’s also going to be a book that a classroom teacher or a science teacher educator can pick up and say, “Wow, that’s the same struggle that I’m having and here’s how this particular group overcame that challenge.”

What is something about you that would surprise people?

I really enjoy home brewing. Predominantly beer, but some wine, as well. I just love the science of it. If I could do something else for a living, I would like to have a little place where I could do some brewing on a bigger scale than five gallons at a time.

What advice do you have for people looking to go into teaching?

I think the world of K-12 teaching is definitely experiencing some challenges right now with the level of respect that teachers have and the desirability of going into teaching.  And I think that while we may be in a challenging time for people entering the profession, I wholeheartedly believe that things will get better and circumstances will absolutely improve as we, as a nation, start to remember and realize the enormous impact that teachers have on every student who enters the classroom. And so my advice would be to stick with it. There are always difficult times and people will always be called into the teaching profession. Already the Rider Post-Bacc and MAT students I’m working with show wonderful dedication to teaching and a genuine interest in helping students to learn. It’s fantastic.

What’s ahead for you on the research front?

Stemming from my dissertation work, one of the surprising realizations that I found that almost half of the teachers who identify strongly as a teacher of climate change did not have an initial undergraduate teacher certification in a traditional program. These teachers were very passionate about incorporating socio-scientific and real world topics like climate change into their classroom, yet often came to teaching as a secondary profession.  Because they had these provocative moments in their previous careers as a science writer for PBS or a clinical psychologist for example, they were able to infuse these prior identities into their teaching and show students the intersections of their lives through their pedagogical choices. For my future research, I’d like to get a better understanding of how career changers come to identify as either teachers in general or more specifically, science teachers.

What do you love about being at Rider?

What really excites me about Rider is that it presents not only an opportunity for me to expand my research pursuits but it’s also a place that is exceptionally dedicated to quality teaching. Rider offers a fantastic balance between improving our educational craft and our understanding of teaching and learning, while at the same time truly being focused on meaningful, effective, and long-lasting outcomes for our students.