By Karen Angelo
When College of Education Dean Eleanor Abrams
was growing up in rural northern Maine, her hero was zookeeper Jack Hanna, her Barbie dolls explored the great outdoors and her pet was a raccoon.
A lifelong outdoor enthusiast, Abrams earned a B.S. in wildlife biology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with the goal of becoming a field biologist. She spent a few years radio-collaring bears in Western Massachusetts, tracking pronghorn antelope in Colorado and surveying songbirds in the White Mountains.
Abrams’ career path shifted when she worked at an environmental educational center in Lansing, Mich. She taught children about science, animals and the environment and how all were connected as part of one community. It was there that she caught the teaching bug.
“I became very interested in the optimal conditions that motivate people to learn science,” says Abrams, a former professor of education at the University of New Hampshire who spent the last five years there in charge of faculty development. “We need science for everything in life. It’s relevant and authentic, and I want young people to get as excited about science as I am.”
Abrams assumed leadership at the College of Education at a time of significant growth. The college launched its first undergraduate program in 30 years, the bachelor of arts degree in education with a dual teaching certification in elementary education and special education and changed its name from the Graduate School of Education to the College of Education. She’s involved in the planning and design of major renovations to Coburn Hall on South Campus, the future home of faculty, staff and students.
Abrams talked to us about her vision for the college, her passion for teaching and her research, including a $1.2 million National Science Foundation-funded study of rural and indigenous people in marginalized communities in northern New Hampshire, Hawaii and India.
Q. Why were you interested in coming to UMass Lowell?
A. I’m thrilled to be here in Lowell, a culturally diverse and interesting learning environment. There is so much that UML, college faculty and former Dean Anita Greenwood have already accomplished, working with our partners in the public schools. I think that my rural upbringing, research background and teaching experiences can expand upon the work of the faculty to work with our students to be the best teachers they can be.
Q. What is your vision for the future of the College of Education?
A. My vision for the College of Education is to build upon a very strong foundation to support the potential in all students – our students and the children and young adults they teach.
We instill confidence and multiple skills in both our undergraduate and graduate majors. We provide opportunities for them to work locally and globally in classrooms with students who speak multiple languages and may also have low-level to moderate learning challenges.
Our approach includes using instructional technology so that students can practice their teaching and putting students in classrooms to work with master teachers from their very first semester. Our faculty today uses electronic avatars that act as children in a classroom for our students to practice interacting with English-language learners, kids with autism spectrum disorder and special needs students as well as parents and supervisors. These computer-generated students don’t mind if you want to try a new approach to teaching the same idea over again.
We’re excited to be hosting international teachers here again in January as part of the State Department’s Teaching Excellence and Achievement Program. They learn from us, and we also learn from them; I haven’t ever been to a country where I didn’t learn some teaching innovations.
We’re bringing more speakers to campus such as Bettina Love, who researches ways that urban youth use hip-hop music and culture to form strong student identities engaged in learning. This can help teachers and schools better understand how to connect and build equitable classrooms.
Once the Coburn Hall renovation is complete in 2020, our new home will also help us realize our vision. The design celebrates the historic significance of the building, but with a modern twist. For example, we’ll have a model high-tech elementary classroom to prepare our students before they get in front of students. The building will have a MakerSpace, an outdoor garden and a design and discovery space that our students can use to sharpen their teaching skills – and it will be wired so we can bring master teachers in online or in person.
Q. What did you learn in your National Science Foundation-funded research that can be applied to any classroom or learning environment?
A. Rather than bringing scientists in to talk to middle-schoolers who might have no interest in careers as scientists, we had the children choose what they wanted to investigate and find people in their community to talk to. For example, some kids in northern New Hampshire wanted to know more about beekeeping and the timber industry. They invited guest speakers, including members of the local beekeeping cooperative and a lumberman, to talk about how they worked and the decisions they made. These community members were working in a very sustainable way because it was cheaper, more efficient or better for the environment. By learning from people in their own community, the students could make a connection from what people do to science concepts such as ecosystems, sustainability and systems thinking. They realized that the people they lived with in their rural communities were using science in their careers and daily lives.
Q. Do you miss being a field biologist?
A. My experiences as a field biologist shape the way I perceive teaching and learning. I see how the city of Lowell is shaped by the environment. People settled here to take advantage of the natural resources created by the confluence of the water and the land. I can also see how the people, coming from around the globe, have molded Lowell and the surrounding areas. These are our unique strengths that we can use to teach our children and engage them to learn as they become part of our community. Do I miss being a field biologist? No, but you can find me wandering around the mountains of the Northeast on most weekends.