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Science Educator Was Ahead of Her Time

Posted: June 29, 2011
Professor Joyce Swartney taught high school chemistry in Michigan and science and math at the Air Force Dependent School in Itazuke, Japan. She participated in National Science Foundation (NSF) institutes across the country and was awarded a Shell Merit Fellowship at Cornell University, an elite program that honored excellence in science teaching.

She conducted pioneering research on student learning difficulties. She served as a science curriculum consultant for Silver Burdett publishers. In 1968, Swartney became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in science education from the University of Wisconsin (she earned her B.S. in chemistry from the University of Detroit and M.S. in science education from the University of Pennsylvania). Later that year, she joined the science education faculty at Buffalo State College.

And she accomplished all of this before the age of 35, at a time when Americans believed that women and science were mutually exclusive terms.

Swartney kept up this prolific pace throughout her 26 years at Buffalo State, where she served as associate dean of the Faculty of Natural and Social Sciences from 1985 until her retirement in 1994. She was invited to serve on panels for the NSF, the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), and other prestigious institutions. From 1971 to 1974, she was an educational consultant to the Peace Corps in Afghanistan.

Swartney also found time to write two science textbooks as well as countless scholarly articles.

Her colleague Don Birdd, professor emeritus of earth sciences and science education, remembers her as a vivacious, straight-talking educator whose enthusiasm for teaching students how to teach science was unmatched.

“To say Joyce was hands-on is an understatement,” Birdd said. “The methods she used for presenting concepts to her students were very creative. Through the American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], she was part of the big push to get women and minorities into education. She played a role in developing new post-Sputnik national science curricula.

“Her impact on science education, if we consider the dispersion factor, was widespread.”

Vivian Pokrzyk, a retired middle school science teacher who participated in professional development events with Swartney through the years, said Swartney believed students could learn anything—as long as the subject matter was made interesting enough.“That’s why she was so committed to teaching teachers,” Pokrzyk said. “Science is active, and it’s all around us. It just needs to be taught in ways that make an impact.”

Swartney’s cousin, Judy Balmer, agreed. “Joyce’s desire was to develop in kids the appreciation for the importance of science in everyday life and its future application in solving problems,” she said. “It’s always been about science for her.”

To honor the longtime Buffalo State professor’s unwavering commitment to the field of science education, Balmer created the Swartney-Harrison “Passion for Teaching Science” Award after Swartney passed away in 2007. The $1,000 award (also named for Angeline Harrison, Balmer’s and Swartney’s aunt) is given annually to a deserving undergraduate or master’s-level science education student.

Balmer also helped to endow the Dr. I. Joyce Swartney Science Teachers Development Award, which was originally established through memorial donations. Up to two students per year receive the award, which covers a one-year membership in the NSTA or STANYS (Science Teachers Association of New York State), as well as attendance at a NSTA or STANYS conference. Balmer decided to contribute the money necessary to endow the award after she learned that Swartney had been quietly contributing to the Teachers Development Fund at Buffalo State for years.

A brand-new science and mathematics complex is currently under construction on the Buffalo State campus—and no doubt Swartney would have approved. “Joyce always thought it was important to keep science education with science,” said Larry Flood, professor of political science and former dean of the School of Natural and Social Sciences. “The new complex will illustrate that Buffalo State is a leader in both.”

Much of that is due to the passion of teachers like Swartney.

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