When Sara Drotzer ’14 was growing up in Poughkeepsie, she loved to travel to New York City from time to time to visit the American Museum of Natural History. Those visits sparked an interest in science that eventually led her to Vassar.
Drotzer earned a degree in earth science, and she’s returned to the museum for postgraduate studies that will soon enable her to share her passion with inner-city high school students. She is completing her student teaching at Gorton High School in Yonkers this spring and will finish her coursework this summer, earning master’s degree from the museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School.
Drotzer says the courses she’s taking at the museum are designed to help her and her fellow students learn how to make science “come to life” in the classroom. “All of our coursework is based on a hands-on, inquiry-based approach to science,” she says. “The focus is on using museums, fieldwork and other community resources as teaching tools rather than simply class lectures. It’s a new approach to science that is designed to enhance learning for all high school students while maintaining state teaching standards.”
All of the Richard Gilder Graduate School’s faculty members are scientists at the Natural History Museum who bring their varied expertise to the classroom. “All of our classes are quite small, so it’s been a really neat experience learning from the museum’s phenomenal educators,” she says. “It’s one of the coolest places there is to learn science.”
Drotzer says she was familiar with learning science this way because that’s the method used at Vassar. “What I liked most about majoring in earth science was all the hands-on stuff we did out in the field,” she says. She credits prof. Jeffrey Walker with steering her to the Natural History Museum’s graduate program and says she doubts she could have gained admission without some special help from associate prof. Kirsten Menking.
“Jeff told me he thought the program would be right up my alley, and Kirsten gave me some extra help when I needed it,” she says. “When I got to Vassar I was not where I should have been in math, and she gave me the extra time I needed to get up to speed, and that made a real difference.”
Drotzer’s earned a fellowship from the Kathryn Davis Foundation that covered the cost of her tuition and other expenses. Under the terms of the fellowship, she is required to teach for four years at an inner-city high school in New York state. Part of her pedagogy coursework included instruction on how to teach students with learning disabilities and students whose families come from diverse cultural backgrounds.
Drotzer is working this summer on her final project for her degree – a study of fossilized mollusks from the museum’s collection. She expects to begin teaching this fall, and when she encounters students who need a little extra help, she’ll remember what Menking had done for her. “I’m looking forward to giving back some of that kindness I received at Vassar,” she says.
Drotzer says she’s eager to begin her teaching career. “What I’ll be bringing to the classroom is engagement in the subject matter on a personal level,” she says. “The goal is to get students involved with and motivated by science learning. We strive to encourage them to engage in their own quests for knowledge as opposed to studying science simply for the sake of passing an exam. In addition, project-based learning can help students become more involved within their communities and take pride in them as they work to make them a better place.”
Drotzer says she often reflects on how her trips to the museum when she was a child had planted the seeds that led her to Vassar and her new career. “When I’m at the museum, I sometimes think back to those times I came down as a kid, becoming excited about science,” she says. “Now I’m here again and I’m not just learning how to teach science; I’m learning a better way to teach science.”
Photo: Samuel Stuart