Barbara Schaal

Advancing STEM Education by Transforming Teachers into Scientists

Barbara SchaalBarbara Schaal, PhD, is an evolutionary plant biologist and dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences. She is recognized for her studies using DNA sequences to understand evolutionary processes such as gene flow, geographical differentiation, and the domestication of crop species.

Schaal is a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (PCAST) Appointed by President Barack Obama, advisors make policy recommendations in the many areas where understanding of science, technology, and innovation is key to strengthening the United States economy and forming policy for the American People. Schaal also serves the U.S Department of State as an appointed science envoy. These preeminent scientists seek to deepen existing ties, foster new relationships with foreign counterparts and discuss potential areas of collaboration that will help address global challenges and realize shared goals. Science envoys travel in their capacity as private citizens and advise the White House, the State Department, and the U.S. scientific community about the insights they gain from their travels and interactions.

Schaal’s career can be traced to an early fascination with plants as a young student in Chicago. “I was fortunate to have a science teacher who suggested I conduct my own research on the side,” says Schaal. “My curiosity was supported and encouraged.”

Schaal’s career path illustrates the vital role today’s science teacher plays in developing tomorrow’s scientists. It also explains why she has been a driving force behind Washington University’s Master of Science in biology degree. WUSTL faculty created and piloted the degree with 90 biology teachers nationwide as a National Science Foundation teacher institute in conjunction with the Institute for School Partnership. The program enables working teachers to earn a master’s degree in biology in two years.

“Teachers have a great impact on our society,” says Schaal. “They have the ability to cast influence far beyond themselves. This program teaches them how to become scientists by providing discipline-specific expertise and in turn—quality learning in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) content.”

Designed around the schedule of in-service teachers, the degree consists of two summer institutes – three weeks each – in residence at Washington University. The remaining coursework during the academic year is completed online. The Institute’s faculty are all members of WUSTL’s biology department and biology and biomedical sciences division, which includes researchers from the top-ranked Washington University School of Medicine.

“Faculty members integrate their own research into the coursework and discussion,” says Schaal. “It is current, authoritative, and timely information from all of the biological science disciplines.”

Schaal believes that advancing science and technology education is important not only to meet the growing demand for jobs requiring these skills, but to enable analytical thinking and problem solving. “Everyone needs to know how to make rational and analytical decisions based on evidence — individual healthcare decisions are an important example,” says Schaal. “Addressing the larger environmental, conservation, and food production issues facing our world also requires scientific understanding.”

Schaal is excited about the long term implications of the Master of Science degree for biology teachers. “This leadership training will advance current STEM curriculum and effectively spread principles of research to more students nationwide. I am encouraged and optimistic about our human resources—they are doing profoundly great work and it is an honor to be a part of this program.”

Barbara Schaal, PhD, has been a member of the National Academy of Sciences since 1999 and was elected as the academy’s first woman vice president in 2005. In 2012, she was appointed U.S. Science Envoy by then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed her to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. She has also served as president of the Botanical Society of America and the Society for the Study of Evolution.