Department welcomes Ryan Stowe, Assistant Professor

Ryan Stowe
Ryan Stowe

On August 1, 2019 chemist and education researcher Ryan L. Stowe, joins the Department of Chemistry.

Stowe received his B.A. in chemistry from Albion College (2010) in Michigan and his Ph.D. in chemistry from The Scripps Research Institute (2016). He most recently worked as a postdoctoral research associate with Melanie Cooper at Michigan State University, where he worked on high school and college chemistry curricula, studied transformation of STEM learning environments, and examined student engagement in practices characteristic of work in science.

The Stowe group will work primarily on improving chemistry learning environments and refining the theoretical commitments that could and should inform chemistry education research.

Why did you choose the University of Wisconsin-Madison?

I chose to join the community at UW Madison in large part because of the widespread dedication among students and faculty to supporting student learning. It is impressive that one of the pre-eminent chemistry departments in the world is so reflective and data-driven with regard to assessing learning environments. I have no doubt that this dedication to teaching and learning, coupled with expertise in the chemistry department and the school of education, will enable truly transformative chemistry education research.

Where did you work last and what made that position interesting?

My last position was as a postdoctoral fellow with Melanie Cooper at Michigan State University (MSU). Melanie created a space for me to transform my enduring interest in problems that fall under the umbrella of “STEM education” into a passion for chemistry education research. I learned a great deal from her and other colleagues at MSU about how learning environments should be designed and how we might get insight into what students know and can do.

What’s the focus of your research and what it could mean for the advancement of science or to the general public?

My research is focused on supporting students in connecting atomic/molecular behavior to the world around them through engagement with high school and college learning environments. There are decades of work cataloging the many struggles of chemistry-enrolled students in leveraging particulate-level models to understand phenomena. I aim to advance beyond listing “things kids can’t do” toward designing, assessing, and refining learning environments that help students build up, organize, and use their intellectual toolkit in productive and progressively more complex ways. This agenda has far-reaching implications for both local learning environments at UW and nationwide approaches to chemistry instruction. I hope that, through meaningfully engaging in chemistry learning environments as scientists, students will appreciate the immense power of particulate models of matter to explain aspects of everyday existence.

Tell us about your background. What made you pursue science and research? How has your experience shaped your research goals?

I am the son of a teacher and have always had tremendous interest in issues related to teaching and learning. About half-way through my doctoral studies, I heard a talk by Bruce Alberts in which the central claim was, “the way we teach science is nothing at all like the way science is practiced.” Bruce’s claim resonated with me – scientific ways of thinking are incredibly useful, and we should hope that all students will cultivate a skeptical disposition in which the evidence supporting claims is carefully examined. Reflection on the importance of these themes led me to realize that working in the science education problem space would be extremely meaningful. As an outgrowth of this realization, I obtained a fellowship in 2015 to work with the Board on Science Education at the National Academies on several consensus studies (which are basically “super reviews”) related to teacher learning, success in undergraduate STEM, and the impact of authentic research experiences. This was a transformative experience in which I realized just how complex and fragmented the education system in the US is as well as the challenges of affecting real change. I learned about chemistry education research through my National Academies fellowship and have found it to be an area in which chemists can have meaningful impact on educational systems and methods.

If you’re an educator, what drives your desire to teach? Tell us about your teaching philosophy and why you believe educating students is important?

There is broad consensus in the learning sciences that students construct their own understanding – information is not passed whole cloth from a “sage on the stage” to students’ minds. I therefore see my role as an educator as helping to facilitate knowledge construction, and eliciting evidence of what has been constructed. I hope that students enrolled in my classes will develop and use atomic/molecular models to predict and explain aspects of the world around them, and that they will internalize scientific ways of thinking as broadly useful. The ability to reasonably relate evidence to claims has never been more important than the modern era. We are constantly bombarded by claims both reasonable and ridiculous, and figuring out which is which is fundamental to engaging in public discourse as a scientifically literate citizen.

What can students expect from you in class or in the lab?

I want class and lab to be spaces where we work together to tackle tough, important problems in a collegial, inclusive manner. Students and researchers should feel free to voice their best ideas and critique those of their peers as we work toward shared goals (whether those goals be research or course related). In such an environment, it is my hope that students will feel empowered to take intellectual “steps into the unknown” without fear of getting the “wrong answer”.

What most excites you about coming to UW–Madison?

The community! There is a tremendous intellectual vibrancy that suffuses the UW – Madison department of chemistry. I am excited to be part of such a wonderful group of scholars.