Professor elected to National Academy of Education

Photo of Gale Sinatra with blurred out greenery behind her.
Sinatra’s work and research focuses on identifying educational roadblocks and assisting educators with covering complex, multi-faceted topics with their students. (Photo courtesy of Steve Cohn)

While Gale Sinatra taught a reading comprehension class at the University of Utah, she witnessed how some of her students struggled to relate to the topic of evolution because the science contradicted many of their families’ beliefs. These difficulties became a topic she would attempt to embark on her extensive research journey.

“I was really surprised and taken [back] by that,” Sinatra said. “That studying science is hard to begin with for some people, and then, it gets more complicated as there’s different aspects of it that people struggle with, from an emotional standpoint or from an identity standpoint.” 

Sinatra, the Stephen H. Crocker Professor of Education at the Rossier School of Education, saw the importance of understanding why many teachers encountered similar issues when it came to controversial scientific topics such as evolution and climate change. With her educational background in psychology, much of Sinatra’s work focuses on identifying these educational roadblocks and assisting educators with their methods of covering these complex topics with their students.

Because of her many years of research and efforts, the National Academy of Education recently elected Sinatra into the organization, a selection she said she is honored and grateful for. Sinatra said she is excited about the National Academy’s mission of improving educational practices and policies and wishes to improve the Academy in any way she can. 

“I hope I can get the National Academy to support more initiatives in climate change education,” Sinatra said. “I do not believe we’ve done a good job in K-12 education in supporting climate change education.”

In addition to the Academy’s recognition, colleagues and students, such as Imogen Herrick, commended Sinatra’s contributions to her fields of study.

“It just demonstrates what an awesome impact she’s had in educational psychology and science education to be selected as such an elite group. It’s almost like a stamp of approval that you’ve truly made an impact on the world,” said Herrick, a doctoral candidate studying urban education policy. Sinatra currently acts as Herrick’s advisor in the PhD program.

Lawrence Picus, associate dean for research and faculty affairs at Rossier, met Sinatra ten years ago at USC and has worked with her on various projects. He said that he supports Sinatra’s attitude toward her research and position at the University. 

“From the very beginning, she was collegial,” Picus said. “She worked with other people. She wanted to be part of the fabric of Rossier and just [has] always been willing to do things and do whatever we needed.”

Sinatra said she finds many of the issues that result in science denial and misunderstanding come from the lack of proper guidance on complex scientific topics. Because of this confusion and lack of direction, people rely on each other for explanations rather than experts on the subject.

“When you don’t understand something about science, then all your emotions and motivations and maybe your identity, your political affiliations, those tend to sort of fill the gap of knowledge,” Sinatra said. 

In addition to her future work with the National Academy, Sinatra has some recent accomplishments related to her research. Sinatra co-authored a book titled “Science Denial: Why It Happens & What to Do About It” with Barbara Hofer, a psychology professor at Middlebury College, in which she further explains the importance of assisting educators with their classrooms and what leads to misinformation.

Additionally, Sinatra and Herrick are working on a project at the La Brea Tar Pits exploring the capabilities of augmented reality and its capability to teach others. 

“I think our goals are to build an augmented reality exhibit that helps to do that, that helps people learn science and helps to recover ideas that maybe aren’t fully correct, and help them to find the correct understanding,” Herrick said. 

Sinatra will continue with her research and projects on education and will be formally inducted into the National Academy of Education at a Washington D.C. meeting in November.