Tim Cooney was a natural fit for the Laboratory School Science Department when he joined it in 1977. He had taken leave from his science teaching at West High School in Painted Post, New York, to pursue a doctoral degree in science education from the University of Colorado at Greeley, and he had already published impressive articles as a graduate student. “Occasionally at all levels of science, the teacher is confronted with student boredom in the laboratory,” began his 1975 article in The Science Teacher titled “Student Generated Laboratory Experiments.” “The student may be tired of reading laboratory manuals, or of perfunctorily doing experiments in search of known results,” he continued. “They may be looking for more opportunities for self-choices or open-ended approaches to laboratory work.”
In 1976, The Science Teacher published “Swing Discs to Show Lenz’s Law” which Cooney co-authored with fellow graduate student Claude J. Gonzales. They pointed out that “[r]arely is the study of Lenz’s Law left out of high school physics units on magnetism and electricity. However, experiments to demonstrate the law are limited and simple equipment usually unavailable.” They describe and show a “simple, yet effective” apparatus for investigating the interaction between a moving disc and a magnetic field. The article includes a diagram and plans for building the equipment.
Cooney replaced Walter Gohman (who retired in 1977), and he took up the baton for innovative curriculum in physics—but in other areas of science as well. He offered The Science Teacher in February and September 1979 a “Biology Name Game” and “Physics Name Game” for students (and teachers). Each “game” offered a block of letters containing the names of more than 20 famous contributors to biology or physics—spelled horizontally, vertically, backwards, diagonally, or split on the horizontal and vertical. Clues for each name were given, such as “H.M.S. Beagle” or “isolated radium.”
Cooney became chair of the Lab School Science Department at Albert Potter’s retirement in 1978. In 1980, Cooney and Lab School Social Studies Department chair Dr. Jeffrey Blaga, received a National Science Foundation grant to offer summer workshops for high school science and social studies teachers focused on science-related social issues. “The idea [was] to help teachers, in an objective manner, deal with controversial issues in science which effect society,” Cooney explained. The workshop dealt with nuclear power, the politics of energy, alternative energy sources, the politics of food, chemicals in the environment, and bioethics. Field trips were made and participants developed their own classroom materials on these topics.
“Teachers Need Help in Science-Related Social Issues,” was Cooney’s follow-up article in the 1981 Phi Delta Kappan. The same year Iowa State University Press published Cooney’s book Science and Social Issues: A Guide for Science Teachers, co- authored with Charles Barman of Buena Vista College and John Rusch of the University of Wisconsin-Superior. The first half of the book deals with the theory of decision making and student cognitive development. The second half offers practical examples that could be used in the classroom.
In 1986, Cooney co-authored with Barman an article for The Science Teacher titled “Science They Care About.” Here the two offered a new three-part instructional model based on Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral reasoning to help teachers deal with value-laden science-related social issues. Step 1 of the model calls for the teacher to launch a topic (such as car crashes) with a motivational exercise. The teacher provides materials and presents a real or hypothetical situation to pique student interest. The students then observe, infer, and question, interacting with the materials and with each other. In Step 2, information expansion, the teacher assumes a more traditional role, introducing new information and expanding on data from the motivational exercise. This might include written materials, audio- visual presentations, and guest speakers. Step 3 is the culminating activity in which the teacher poses a new situation or problem that students can address on the basis of the two previous steps. Here, as in Step 1, the teacher serves as a facilitator, helping individual students and small groups, rather than commanding the attention of the entire class. Cooney and Barney illustrate the model by introducing inertia and Newton’s laws of motion with a simple demonstration involving the dolls Barbie and Ken—leading to the culminating activity in which the students evaluate a range of statements regarding seat belts. Cooney’s work represented application to elementary and secondary teachers and students insights from his doctoral dissertation on “The Effects of Values Clarification Techniques in College Physical Science on Critical Thinking Ability, Open- mindedness and Achievement.”
The year 1982 brought a change in national science education funding that forced a change in Laboratory School programs for both teachers and students. Cooney and Dr. Darrell Hoff, a UNI professor of earth science, had been directing a Pre-College Teacher Development program that by 1982 had reached almost 600 elementary and secondary school teachers throughout the state. This program offered a wide selection of short-courses to give Iowa math and science teachers a look at new developments in science and refresher courses in basic science. Cooney, Hoff, and others traveled across the state to teach the courses on such topics as the body and drugs, energy concepts, microcomputers and hand-held calculators. National Science Foundation funding had also supported the dissemination of science education materials to Iowa teachers. Dr. Clifford G. McCollum, Dean of the UNI College of Natural Sciences, pointed out that the NSF science education division and UNI had been almost a perfect match, with both having an emphasis on in- service training of teachers and undergraduate education. The cuts in national science education funding meant the Lab School could offer fewer summer and academic year workshops for both students and teachers (which furthered research and the development of materials for science education).
Cooney responded to this challenge by beginning a long association with Scott, Foresman Publishing in a series of science books for students and teachers which, across the next decades, went into multiple editions, including editions in Spanish. These included the co-authored Earth Science and Physical Science in 1983 and later separate Scott, Foresman Science or Discover Science volumes for each grade pre-K through sixth grade, including activity books.
He also began to unroll his collaborative PRISMS: Physical Resources and Instructional Strategies for Motivating Students, a series of science experiments that grab the attention of high school students by getting them actively involved in reasoning and problem solving activities. In 1988, he was part of UNI’s Minorities in Education program which brought students and their parents from across the state to visit his physics classroom.
Just as James Kelly moved from Lab School science teaching in 1990, that year Cooney followed, moving “up the hill” to join the UNI Department of Earth Science. In July 1991, his work in U.S. science education brought an invitation to make two presentations at the first-ever Joint USA-USSR Science Education Conference, held in Moscow. The glasnost thaw made this conference possible: its purpose, Cooney stated, was “to bring together science educators from both countries to discuss the status of science as well as to share programs that both felt were outstanding in various areas of science.” Cooney’s first presentation was on the status of earth science education in the United States; his second, on PRISMS, his own high school physics program. At that time, about 10 percent of U.S. physics teachers had been trained in the PRISMS program. “The Soviets were looking for activities which would be of high interest to students,” Cooney explained. “PRISMS offers the kind of activities that would relate physics to the students’ everyday lives,” using sailboats, toy cars, bicycles, and dolls to illustrate concepts.
Cooney found both differences and similarities in Soviet science education. Rather than concentrating on one specific area of science, such as earth science, biology, chemistry, or physics, during one year, Soviet students were exposed to portions of each discipline each year. “This method takes advantage of the intellectual maturation of the students,” Cooney said, noting that some U.S. schools were trying this method. While the Soviets had a national science curriculum, Cooney said he sensed a strong desire to regionalize the curriculum. With the break-up of the Soviet Union immediately after the Conference, Cooney felt those desires might be more readily met. Cooney found that the Soviet science teachers faced similar challenges in motivating students, and in drawing female students to science. He was surprised to hear the Soviet educators emphasize ecological concerns. “They felt it was important to instill in students a sense of saving the earth and preserving it for future generation,” Cooney said, “which is something we are talking about here.”
In 1993, the co-authored PRISMS: Physical Resources and Instructional Strategies for Motivating Students was published. In 2005, PRISMS Plus appeared from Cooney and co-authors Dr. Roy Unruh and Dr. Lawrence Escalada from the UNI Department of Physics. Its Unit I was on Force and Motion; Unit II on Work and Energy; Unit III on Waves and Optics; and Unit IV on Electricity, Magnetism, and Modern Physics.
In 1994, through a grant from the Iowa Energy Center, Cooney developed energy units for middle school students, and in 2003 his book Teaching Science in the Two- Year College was published by the National Science Teachers Association. In 2009, Cooney offered program on air quality issues for teachers from 15 states.