Reflecting on the start of his journey into academia, USF alumnus Troy Sadler, PhD `03, admitted that his studies at USF were not his first experience in a doctoral program.
After earning a master’s degree in science education from the University of Florida, Sadler entered a PhD program in biology at Harvard University. While he excelled in his studies, Sadler felt like something was missing and he wasn’t excited about the focus of his research.
He decided to leave Harvard early and return to the classroom as a high school biology and earth science teacher in St. Petersburg, Fla. With a passion for helping students make positive learning gains, Sadler quickly sought out new professional development opportunities to improve his craft. He looked to the local university to take classes that would help grow his skills in the classroom.
Sadler says it was by accident that he found a new home in the USF College of Education’s Science Education Program. While on summer break in 1999, he drove over to USF’s Tampa campus to ask about course offerings for the upcoming Fall term. He was sent to Dana Zeidler, PhD, a distinguished university professor and the program coordinator for USF’s Science Education PhD concentration.
During their conversation, Zeidler suggested Sadler consider enrolling in USF’s PhD program. While hesitant based on previous experience, a few days later, Sadler applied and enrolled for the upcoming term. He said the doctoral program at USF provided a “perfect match” that combined his research interests with a mission to advance the science teaching profession.
While his studies at USF initially started with a curiosity for the moral and ethical issues in science education, the doctoral program helped Sadler realize his passion for conducting research and serving as a teacher educator.
“Interviewing teachers and students, finding out how people learn, figuring out how we might improve those learning processes—I just got a real excitement and joy out of the work, in a way that other things I had tried, whether it be classroom teaching or research in the sciences, just didn’t pull everything together for me,” Sadler said. “My work at USF did that. It pulled everything together.”
After years of research and discovery, Sadler completed his dissertation and earned his PhD in 2003. He said he credits the opportunities USF provided him and the mentorship he received from Zeidler as being one of the vital parts in shaping his professional career.
“He was a fantastic mentor,” Sadler said. “I always felt like he treated me like a colleague…He invested in me, he invested in my ideas and I really appreciated that. As my time at USF went on, I think that collegial nature he created early on just kind of grew. So, by the time I left, I was perhaps a little more worthy to be his colleague, because at that point I had some things to contribute to the conversation, and that became really fun.”
Thinking back on his time as a doctoral student, Sadler recalled a visit he and his wife made to Zeidler’s karate dojo—an “unofficial requirement” for those who studied under the professor. Despite knowing nothing about karate, the experience was humbling yet memorable, and reminds Sadler of how he has maintained a close friendship throughout the years with his faculty mentor, even as he’s advanced his career and pursued his own research interests.
Today, Sadler serves as the Thomas James Distinguished Professor in Experiential Learning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a role he’s held since 2019. Throughout his career, he’s helped prepare the next generation of science educators to provide high-quality instruction to their students and served in faculty positions at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, University of Missouri, University of Florida and Indiana University Bloomington.
Sadler’s research explores socio-scientific issues, or the study of how educators can use complex, compelling issues in society as context for engaging students in science education. The goal of this work, Sadler says, is to help students “connect the dots” and better understand how science connects to their lives so they can apply what they are learning in the classroom to solving real-world problems.
“For me, that idea of figuring out ways that we can help students be better prepared to deal with the complex issues in the world and in their lives—whether we’re talking about climate change or the COVID-19 pandemic, or about questions of where our fresh water is going to come from in a decade—those are huge imposing questions,” Sadler said. “I am super excited about being a part of the work to help students be prepared for addressing some of those really tough questions.”
Sadler said it is not enough for educators to teach students about the science behind real-world issues. He explains that instead, teachers should help their students discover how understanding the science can better inform their broader decision-making.
“We can’t just teach people the science of viruses and expect the COVID pandemic to solve itself,” Sadler said. “There’s a whole lot more involved in responsible negotiation and decision-making around these complex issues. I think that we ought to be—we as educators and researchers—ought to be helping figure out how we can better support learners in making some of those informed decisions.”
Sadler’s work has been funded by national organizations including the National Science Foundation, the Institute of Education Sciences, the U.S. Department of Education and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He’s also received numerous awards for his accomplishments, such as the Early Career Research Award and the Journal of Research in Science Teaching Award from the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, and the Cultural Studies of Science Education Distinguished Paper Award from the research journal “Cultural Studies of Science Education.”
His most recent recognition comes from his alma mater, the USF College of Education. This spring, Sadler was selected as the 2021 recipient of the Dean’s Lifetime Achievement Alumni Award, an award that recognizes a College of Education graduate who has demonstrated long-term contributions, achievement and service within education and related professions.
“I really enjoyed my time at USF,” Sadler said. “My time there fundamentally transformed where my professional life went, and I am so grateful for that to have happened. To then be honored with this award associated with my time there, it’s overwhelming and truly wonderful.”
For early career researchers and doctoral students who aspire to follow similar path as his own, Sadler’s advice is to develop a clear idea of what your research goals are and stay focused on achieving them.
“You’ll get lots of opportunities, you’ll be asked to do lots of different things,” Sadler said. “…Look for ways to piece together these opportunities—or the opportunities you create for yourself—to develop the kind of research and teaching agenda that you’re going to be happy with, that you’re going to be satisfied with and that you’re going to be proud of.”