2016​ PK-12 Spotlight

Rod WilliamsThe College of Agriculture PK-12 Council Outreach and Engagement Awards reward faculty and staff involved in successful outreach and engagement activities and encourage others to improve upon and expand those activities. Winner of the 2016 PK-12 Emerging Faculty Impact Award is Rod Williams, associate professor of forestry and natural resources.

"In 30+ years of teaching, this class is one of the best I’ve taken."
—Participant, The Nature of Teaching workshop
Rod Williams says the resources that Purdue offers its students, staff, and faculty allow them to excel—and in his career Williams has tested all three. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Science, master’s degree in Conservation Genetics, and doctorate in Evolutionary Genetics at the university. He then spent eight years as the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources’ vertebrate curator and coordinator of laboratory instruction, managing the vertebrate teaching collection, teaching courses on ecology and systematics of vertebrates, and co-authoring two field guides.

By the time Williams joined the faculty in 2008, he’d had the time and experience to evaluate needs in Extension. “Traditional Extension, like that to farmers, was covered pretty well,” he says. “One of things I saw was the need to work with teachers and youth to get them interested in natural resources.” 

Williams conducted focus groups with licensed teachers who told him they lacked not just science-based lesson plans but adequate training to incorporate natural resources into existing curricula. They also told Williams they would benefit from an easily accessible repository for natural resources-based information. 

He responded by creating a comprehensive, weeklong Extension workshop called The Nature of Teaching. It has grown from a single annual workshop for 20 teachers in Tippecanoe County to four statewide that train 80. With Extension educators joining his team, which now stands at 13 members, Williams says the model could be adopted more broadly as funding is available. He also has presented his PK-12 program to educators at professional workshops and conferences.

He then developed a Nature of Teaching website (www.purdue.edu/nature), where educators interested in incorporating natural resources into their curricula can download scholarly lesson plans that focus on nature. They’ve been downloaded more than 45,000 times since the website went live in 2010.

The best part personally for Williams: “The materials I’m creating are being used by teachers to help youth get excited about the things I’m excited about.”

“One of the challenges I discovered is that when you’re developing curriculum that’s focused on science, it also has to touch on mathematics, language arts, and social studies,” he adds. Williams credits his wife, an elementary educator, as “a wonderful sounding board to help make my programs successful.” 

Williams’ teaching and Extension are directly integrated, and his undergraduate and graduate students often help create content. He also teaches an innovative undergraduate service-learning course in which undergraduates develop and implement PK-12 Extension programs to local elementary schools.

Williams says he was surprised to receive the PreK-12 Sustained Faculty Impact award because so many faculty members across the college are doing outstanding work in Extension. “I think it’s great that the college not only recognizes faculty members that are participating in these types of endeavors but rewards them for doing so,” he says. He will use the cash prize to leverage other grants to continue to broaden the breadth and depth of his K-12 programming, and to search out more good ideas at conferences across the country.​​​​

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