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Why Gifts Matter: Scholarship Support Makes It Possible for Kimberly Ideus to Inspire Awe in Teachers

A headshot of Kimberly Ideus

On a June evening in the Great Smoky Mountains, a group of 30 teachers found themselves surrounded by thousands of tiny pinpricks of light. 

They were there that night to witness a firefly migration and, in addition to the familiar flashes of yellow-green, they also spotted insects pulsing a steady blue, as well as countless members of a synchronous species that glowed together as one. 

“It was like a silent firework show,” said Kimberly Ideus, a doctoral student in the NC State College of Education’s Ph.D. in Learning and Teaching in STEM science education concentration.

Ideus describes moments like these as “awe experiences,” and she traveled to the Great Smoky Mountains last summer to research the impact they can have on science teachers. 

“A cool thing that happens when people are in nature is that they have a frequent opportunity to experience the emotion of awe,” Ideus said. 

To complete her research, Ideus relied on financial support from the NC State College of Education, specifically a Dissertation Award and the John and Nell Penick Fellowship in Science Education. 

This funding covered the cost of her attending STEAM in the Park, an experiential program that immerses educators in National Parks such as Great Smoky Mountains, and allowed her to financially compensate the educators she interviewed as part of her work.

“That was really fun; to hear the in-depth stories of how having that awe experience out in nature really influenced them to be better science teachers,” Ideus said. 

In addition to the one-on-one interviews, Ideus completed a survey of the teachers who attended STEAM in Park and found a significant result — having an awe experience positively impacted their self-efficacy to teach science. This became the subject of her dissertation, “​​The Epistemic Emotion of Awe: A Tool for Science Teachers’ Professional Development,” which she defended earlier this month. 

“My turnaround in this has been very fast,” Ideus said. “All of that was made possible because I didn’t have to worry about the money.”

Ideus, who spent years in the classroom as a high school science teacher, hopes her work leads to more educators experiencing a sense of awe in nature, especially those who may feel bogged down by their day-to-day responsibilities.

“It’s really important that they have something that inspires them to keep doing the work,” Ideus said. 

As Ideus’ research shows, sometimes what a science teacher needs is a firefly.