Dr. Rebecca Cooper is the department chair for graduate education at Brenau University and works out of the Norcross, Ga. campus.

Practical Science

Rebecca Cooper prepared for her current role as a leading professor in the College of Education at Brenau’s North Atlanta/Norcross campus with a lot of education and experience in marine biology. Now she teaches the teachers of those who will become America’s next generation of scientists. Many of her nontraditional students not only are changing horses in the middle of their career streams to enhance career opportunities. They’re changing streams.

Dr. Rebecca Penwell-Cooper may not regard herself as a change agent, but in a sense, that is what she has become in the world of the nontraditional student at Brenau. Based at the North Atlanta/Norcross campus, Penwell-Cooper essentially is an education professor specialized in early childhood and middle grades education, but has never strayed too far from her background and experience in science and science education as professor of science education and chair of the Brenau College of Education’s advanced programs department.

That’s significant for one very important reason: with budget-stressed state and local governments’ cutting back across the board on school spending, often resulting in teacher furloughs and layoffs and elimination of pay incentives for advanced degrees, there is one area in K-12 teacher prep that is getting some financial attention: STEM.

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and since the 1983 publication of the A Nation at Risk, the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s landmark report that concluded American public school education was in free fall, particularly in STEM disciplines, that have been periodic pushes to change that. We have all seen the reports, for example, like the one in April showing that American kids lag alarmingly behind students in many other nations around the world in math and science proficiency. Among 40 other nations, students in the U.S. ranked 32ndin mathematics, 21st in science. A report recently published by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance found that students in Latvia, Chile and Brazil are making gains in academics three times faster than American students, while those in Portugal, Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Colombia and Lithuania are improving at twice the rate.

President Obama and other national leaders continue to sound the call for additional governmental support for increased emphasis on science and math education earlier in the K-12 cycle. In addition to providing stronger foundations for students preparing for higher education in those disciplines, the demand for graduates with science and math skills from all levels of education to fill available jobs outweighs the supply of workers the education establishment is producing to fill them. That factor alone threatens the U.S. ability to compete globally. President Obama has called for 100,000 highly qualified STEM teachers over the next decade, and to get them ready for the much-anticipated new K-12 math and science standards. With only 26 percent of U.S. 12th graders now deemed proficient in math, most states have adopted more rigorous new for what kids should master at each level. And that puts greater demand on higher education institutions like Brenau to produce more teachers who are qualified to prepare students.

Cooper was instrumental in the development of Brenau’s master’s degree program that is aimed primarily at those who have degrees and work experience in fields other than education to prepare them for career-changing moves into education, particularly at the K-12 level. The classic example is that of a physician who in early retirement wanted to coach football part time and teach biology in a local high school. But because he had none of the academic preparation require by the state to be certified as a public school teacher, he was not qualified for the job.

Cooper, who has been called one of the hardest working professors at Brenau, says the only thing she is more passionate about than the academic content is helping students achieve their academic and career goals.

Having worked at the North Atlanta/Norcross campus for about a decade, she says she finds “particularly exciting” her work with returning adults who are making career changes.

“They are very motivated, mature, which isn’t unique to the evening/weekend program,” she says, “but they really care. I find it very satisfying to help these students, many of whom have families, make a career change. They could be in their 30s or 40s but they know they need to make a change to get a job. And, I never forget how unsettling a career change can be and how overworked these students are. I appreciate the effort they are making and I can see how much they want it, which is exciting.”

Specifically, in addition to administrative duties and work in recruiting students as a department chair, Cooper teaches science content and science methods courses in the Master of Education and Education Specialist programs and advises students in all Brenau’s graduate education programs. Most of her teaching medical and science content occurs online. The program is innovative and consists of seven weeks of hybrid class where students report to class and also are online. “It’s a lot of how we offer classes these days,” she says. It’s unique.”

Cooper, who has been a member of the Brenau faculty since 2003, lives in Norcross, Ga. She earned a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction in 2003 and a Master of Education in science education with a biology emphasis in 2001 from the University of Florida. She also has a 1999 Master of Science in biology from Florida International University. She is a 1996 magna cum laude graduate of Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., with a bachelor of science in biology/environmental science. Among additional undergrad experience was time she spent at Duke University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, N.C. In 2006-07, she also coached the Brenau cheerleading squad and has been faculty adviser for Delta Delta Delta.

Throughout her career Cooper has been involved in leadership and advisory roles with a number of education institutions and organizations. For example, in addition to service on standards committees for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, she is councilor for the Science Education Section of the Georgia Academy of Science, for which she has held several leadership positions and a member of the editorial board for the peer review Georgia Journal of Science. She has published articles in several journals and presented at numerous professional conferences, seminars and workshops on education and science teaching issues. Since 2010 has served as chair of the Graduate Education Department at Brenau.

Brenau is a great place for faculty as well as students, she says. “It’s a great experience. It’s a great facility and the people are approachable. It’s a good education program and the graduate program is online. It’s strong educational courses. I just am exciting about the North Campus and the students. It doesn’t get better.”

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