Karin Loach ’11 ’20 waited until her children were in school to start on her own college education.
She worked as a teaching assistant in the Auburn, Mass., schools while studying at Worcester State College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in natural science, with a minor in middle school education, in 2007.
After she became comfortable teaching eighth-grade science at Auburn Middle School, she began work on her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction at UMass Lowell. She chose UMass Lowell for its strong online program and the science education concentration. A few years later, she went on for her doctor of education degree (Ed.D.) at UML, too.
“I chose it because of the fact that they had a STEM option in the Ed.D. program and I had some of the same faculty as I did for my master’s program,” she says.
She had helped to write a successful Innovation School grant to improve STEM education at the middle school, and had informally become the go-to STEM expert. But she felt that she needed more formal training, so she decided to add a graduate certificate in STEM education. Her husband persuaded her to go for the full Ed.D. through a three-year program that is almost entirely online and requires research and a dissertation.
“I was extremely afraid of the dissertation,” Loach says.
That seems almost laughable now. Loach presented her dissertation research in person at the annual conference of the Eastern Educators Research Association (EERA) – and won the 2020 Best Graduate Paper award.
Students in the doctoral program spend much of their third year researching a “problem of practice” – a focused research question based on their experience as teachers, principals, curriculum specialists, school superintendents or faculty at a teaching college. Then they write up the results for their dissertation, which they must defend.
Loach chose to study a single elementary school to see how prepared and confident the teachers felt in their ability to teach science and help students achieve the learning goals of the Massachusetts science curriculum. The answer: Not very.
Assoc. Prof. Iman Chahine, an ethno-mathematician and recent Fulbright Scholar, suggested that Loach and the other third-year doctoral students in the STEM track apply to present their research at the 2020 EERA conference in Florida. All of their proposals were accepted, and the dean’s office helped to pay for their travel.
Loach says it was a wonderful experience that helped prepare her for her dissertation defense. And learning that she had won the award in October 2020, a few months after she graduated, was the icing on the cake.
Now she is looking for adjunct teaching positions, so that she can help future and early-career teachers strengthen their STEM teaching skills, while continuing to teach middle school. She may also seek a job as a curriculum specialist in the future.
For the moment, though, she’s happy to put her full focus on her eighth graders, especially as she faces the challenge of teaching partly in person and partly online during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve really been enjoying teaching again, even though we’re doing the hybrid model, and that comes with its own challenges,” she says.