TERC Staff Feature: Brian Drayton

With this issue, we begin a series of staff profiles, doing a little investigation into the investigators themselves: what motivates them; what has shaped the trajectory of their work; and what they do outside of TERC. Our first story features Brian Drayton, Co-Director of the Center for School Reform, who came to TERC with degrees in linguistics and a resume that included running a rest home, and follows his path to plant biology, ecology, and teaching.

A Beginner's Mindset

“The funding might come in, so why don’t you start August 1st, and we’ll see what happens?”

Brian Drayton recalls hearing these words from TERC’s then- Director Bob Tinker in 1986 and being grateful for the risk Bob was willing to take.

Brian, with undergraduate and graduate degrees in linguistics, had an unusual background which did not seem to prepare him for TERC: he’d worked as a freelance editor, run a rest home for three years, and worked in the customer education department of LISP Machine, Inc.

While Bob might have been the one taking the risk, Brian’s beginner’s mindset and curiosity have kept him at TERC for 37 years and counting. “I was able to stay at TERC, I think, because I was willing to be a beginner over and over and over again, so I had several different careers,” Brian says. “The fascination of the work, the importance of the work, probably the diversity of the work, and also the people, those are the things that kept me.”

Brian Drayton (back row center) and TERC staff circa 1992.

Brian Drayton (back row center) and TERC staff circa 1992.

A Passion for Climate Change

Over the years Brian has worked on projects ranging from research to curriculum and teacher professional development to electronic communities. The list of projects is too long to include here, but there are threads woven throughout that reveal Brian’s passion for ecology, which for him always included climate change.

“I look at the world like an ecologist. As I have said now for 20 years, the most important science for the 21st century is ecology.”

Though not his first project at TERC, Brian recalls that the Global Lab project sparked his ecology path. Soon after joining the project, he enrolled in a research master’s program in Plant Ecology at Boston University, followed by a Ph.D. The time devoted to his degrees gave him the confidence to take what he learned from Global Lab and co-create the Ecology Curriculum, integrating all levels of biology to address climate change. Brian followed this by working on Astrobiology: An Integrated Science Approach, Biocomplexity and the Habitable Planet, The Climate Lab, and Innovate to Mitigate.

Global Lab was an international network of schools that participated in activities designed by TERC to help students use tele-collaboration to expand their scientific investigations beyond the classroom walls and into the world. Not only was Global Lab the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) first climate change curriculum but it was also the first climate change education grant awarded by NSF.

Collaborators and Mentors

Brian emphasizes that almost every project he’s worked on has been collaborative from the beginning, and his collaborators have been mentors for him. “We’ve always told new people coming to TERC, ‘If you really want to succeed, find a buddy, find somebody you can work with, because the work is so much richer if you can collaborate.’”

His longest standing partnership is one he forged in the ’90s with Joni Falk. The pair have written many proposals together, leading to research projects such as “Researching science in the wireless high school” and “Eyes to the Future.” Brian had been part of some of TERC’s early electronic community projects (pre-internet) such as LabNet. He is fascinated by how learning happens in such networks and has played various roles in the string of electronic community projects that Joni spearheaded. LSC-Net, a community for Local Systemic Change (LSC) initiatives throughout the country; MSPNet, an online network that offered interactive online poster sessions, panels, and webinars; and the STEM for All Video Showcase, an interactive film festival that features videos from hundreds of projects aimed at improving STEM education: all focused on creating collaborative networks for people to collaborate and mentor each other.

In the late ’90s, when Joni Falk and Brian were researching how middle-school science teachers understood and enacted inquiry, Brian began to consider what ‘inquiry’ meant. His search to understand inquiry and its implications for his work led him to co-found TERC’s Dewey Group, colleagues inside and outside TERC who love thinking with and learning from each other. John Dewey was doing the philosophy by writing about it — nearly 20 years later, the Dewey group reads selections from Dewey and meets, continuing their mutual education through dialogue. Brian believes his thinking, his writing, and his own inquiries have come to be flavored and retuned by this long engagement with Dewey and some friends.

“Dewey always invites the next question, always asks about consequences, always dares to think aloud. The Dewey Group has given me an experience of inquiry in company, mutual education through dialogue.”

Always Thinking of the Teacher First

While research has always been part of Brian’s work, the root of much of this research is his fascination with how and why teachers do what they do, and how they learn their practice. His persistent goal has been the positive impact research can have for teachers and their classrooms.

“The thing about teachers is that they have an unpredictably large impact on the world. You never know who their teaching is going to touch,” Brian observes. “What we (researchers) can do for teachers enables that, in a sense. It gets amplified by whatever they do, and we’ll never know, but that’s okay.”

It’s no surprise that Brian’s latest project is Climate and Equity: Summer Institute for Learning and Teaching with Gilly Puttick (another longtime collaborator) and Folashadé Solomon. The goal of this project is to foster teachers’ collective growth as they work with their students on climate change and justice, which are inseparable strands in our society’s current crisis. In a way, this project ties a bow around Brian’s passions: climate change, collaboration, and helping teachers.

CE_group_schoodicBrian Drayton (fourth from the right) and TERC staff with teachers from across the U.S. at the 2022 Climate and Equity Institute.

Climate and Equity Institute goals are to develop a foundation for understanding what content, resources, and pedagogical strategies best support teaching about climate and equity across widely diverse school and community contexts. To learn more about past institutes and how you can join Brian and Gilly and their team on a Climate and Equity summer retreat, visit www.terc. edu/climateandequity/.

Teaching is a thread for Brian not only at TERC: his wife Darcy, with whom he lives in the Monadnock region of New Hampshire, is an artist and Waldorf teacher; and he has presented and published widely on Quaker spirituality and history.

There is no doubt that Brian’s work has advanced the field of STEM education, and his work and that of his collaborators is widely cited. That is not how Brian measures success for himself, though. Instead, every year Brian asks himself, “Can I point to any specific teacher or student who has had a better experience in science class this year? Who has had more joy and learned more? That’s been the fundamental driving question of my career in many ways.”

View the Spring 2023 Hands On! Magazine here.

Hands On! Spring 2023


TERC Staff Feature: Brian Drayton


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