The new executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) has never taught science at the precollege level. Nor has David Evans carried out research on how to improve science teaching and learning.
But the 66-year-old physical oceanographer believes that a lifetime spent first doing, and then managing, science is valuable training for running an organization dedicated to helping its 60,000 members keep up with a rapidly changing field. For example, Evans notes that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) coming out this spring will require massive professional development for teachers in states that choose to adopt the voluntary national standards. At the same time, the proliferation of free online courses in all areas means that "people can get information in a variety of new ways."
Evans, who took the helm at NSTA last week, acknowledges that he's on a steep learning curve. But he already has a lot of experience coping with the shifting winds that can blow through science-savvy organizations.
He was undersecretary of science at the Smithsonian Institution during the tumultuous tenure of Lawrence Small, but resigned when Small was removed in 2007 after deciding that "I couldn't see a future for myself" at the venerable organization. He then became director of the Center for Sustainability at the consulting firm Noblis Inc. But last fall the company decided the center wasn't commercially viable, he says, and its decision to "break up the pieces" led him out to bow out.
As he pondered his next move, Evans heard from the interim NSTA executive director, Gerald Wheeler. Last spring, NSTA's leadership decided to part ways with Francis Eberle, who had headed the organization since 2008. They had coaxed Wheeler out of retirement, temporarily, by promising to find his successor as quickly as possible.
Evans says his career has benefited from fortuitous circumstances and a series of strong mentors. After earning his doctorate at the University of Rhode Island (URI), for example, he was offered a tenure-track faculty position being vacated by his major adviser, Richard Lambert, when Lambert moved to the National Science Foundation. After nearly a decade at URI, Evans became a program manager at the Office of Naval Research, which had supported much of his research on the interaction of small and large-scale ocean phenomena. It was a dream job, he recalls: The Cold War was still raging and "antisubmarine warfare was a top priority."
Then "peace broke out," he says. But John Knauss, a former URI dean who was then head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, recruited him to beef up NOAA's ocean service, and Evans held a series of increasingly responsible jobs at the agency before moving to the Smithsonian in 2002 to become its first head of science.
Evans says that he helped NOAA revive educational activities that had been frozen by Congress. And the Smithsonian's extensive educational programming "was a big part of my agenda," he adds. His goal is to help NSTA better serve its members—"I call them classroom teachers of science rather than science teachers because not all of them have a background in the subject"—and allow them to become more effective educators.
"I appreciate being in a place where there is a real opportunity for change," he says. "The NGSS represent a daunting challenge, but I think NSTA has the expertise on staff to give teachers the professional development and the course materials they need, as well as the opportunities to share information with their peers. I have a Jeffersonian view of the importance of evidence-based programs, and that's what we try to provide."