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Science Teachers' Group Seeks New Head After Shakeup

Following the dismissal this spring of former executive director Francis Eberle with virtually no explanation, the National Science Teachers Association is in the midst of a national search for a replacement.

The change at the helm—which I'm told surprised many former NSTA board members and others active in the organization—comes at an important time for science educators, with an effort to craft a set of common science standards across states in the works. The NSTA has been a significant player in that effort, though it publicly expressed some concerns with the draft document issued in May.

I'll readily admit here that I am behind the times in learning—and reporting—that Eberle was actually dismissed by the board after four years (as opposed to voluntarily stepping down). There was no press release announcing the action. (Hat tip to Jeffrey Mervis' piece in ScienceInsider, for clueing me in.)

Former Executive Director Gerald Wheeler is back in his old job on an interim basis until a new leader is selected.

I've made some inquiries in recent days to get to the bottom of Eberle's dismissal, but have made little headway. One NSTA official simply said "the board decided to make a change in leadership," and offered no further details (other than to say the action was NOT the result of any improper conduct). The same is true of a letter to state NSTA affiliates in April, authored by former NSTA President Patricia Simmons. She was at the helm of the board when the vote was taken. The board "made a change in the Association's leadership," she wrote, with no further elaboration of the reasons.

Mervis pressed her for more details in an interview, but apparently to no effect. "I would rather not discuss the reasons," she told him. Simmons did not respond to an email from me last week.

I reached out to Eberle, who did respond but declined to discuss his exodus. As for his future plans, he said: "I am looking for new ways to support STEM education."

NSTA's Ideal Candidate

So, what is the NSTA looking for in its next leader? The "ideal candidate," the group says in a recent ad, "will have an established reputation as a leader in science education, a successful track record in nonprofit management, and either strong experience or high potential in fundraising." You can find far more details about the NSTA's search here.

In an interview last week, Wheeler told me he was not clear on the reasons for Eberle's dismissal, but said the leadership change should not signal any significant directional shift for the NSTA.

"I've been given the marching orders to keep the ship going in the same direction while we search for a new executive director," said Wheeler, who was the NSTA's executive director for 13 years, stepping down in 2008.

With regard to the common science standards, he said the board's action has no bearing on the NSTA's work on or commitment to that undertaking.

"NSTA is a thousand percent behind the Next Generation Science Standards," he said.

Wheeler said he believes the organization's financials are strong, as well as its membership base. He estimates that the organization currently has about 60,000 dues-paying members, though he did say the NSTA faces challenges ahead as more science teachers retire.

"We are retiring people at an alarming rate, so we need to find ways to make sure the young pups get involved," he said. "When I was young, [joining the NSTA] was kind of the thing to do."

Wheeler acknowledged that the NSTA has made little headway in its effort to draw private funding support for plans for a new headquarters building and professional development center. Dubbed the John Glenn Center for Science Education, it's billed as an attempt to provide a "venue and a dynamic tool for teaching and learning about energy conservation, sustainable design, and ecological principles."

"We do have a capital campaign to build a new building, but getting corporations to invest in bricks and mortar is like pulling teeth," he said.

'A Lot of Us Were Very Surprised'

Francis Eberle was named the NSTA's executive director in May 2008. His background included leadership roles in state organizations, including the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance, serving as a principal or co-principal investigator on six National Science Foundation research grants, and teaching middle and high school science (as well as at the college level).

I was in touch with Page Keeley, a senior program director at the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance, about Eberle's ouster. She worked with him in Maine and also was on the NSTA board when Eberle led the organization. (Keeley was the NSTA president for the 2009-10 year.)

"I was quite surprised by the board's decision, as were several other NSTA past presidents and past board members who served when he was executive director," she wrote me in an email. "The details are not public, as this was a decision made in executive session."

She added: "He leaves NSTA as a well-respected leader in science education both among its members who knew him and with the larger science education community. He will be missed."

Another former board member, who asked not to be named, echoed some of these points.

"I think I can safely say, a lot of us were very surprised [by the board's action]," she said. "I thought he brought good leadership, infused a vision of good research."

NSTA officials say the organization expects to name a new executive director by late fall.

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