Mary L. Urquhart, Ph.D.


B.S., Physics (Astrophysics Option), New Mexico Tech
B.S., Geophysics, New Mexico Tech
M.S., Astrophysical Planetary and Atmospheric Sciences, Univ. of Colorado at Boulder
Ph.D., Astrophysical Planetary and Atmospheric Sciences, Univ. of Colorado at Boulder

Postgraduate Education

Caltech Postdoctoral Scholar (at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory), 1999-2000
National Research Council Postdoctoral Associate (at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Center for Mars Exploration), 2000-2002

University Affiliations

Affiliate Professor, Department of Physics
Member, William B. Hanson Center for Space Sciences
Member, Faculty Senate
Co-Director, UT Dallas UTeach Program

External Affiliations

Member, Texas Advisory Committee for the NASA Pre-service Teaching Working Group
Member, Science Teachers Association of Texas
Member, American Association of Physics Teachers
Member, Physics Education Research Leadership Organizing Council
Member, American Geophysical Union


Dr. Urquhart’s formal training is as a planetary scientist with a specialization in the constraints on thermophysical properties of rocky and icy planetary crustal materials derived from temperature variations. However, starting in 1996 she has become increasingly involved in both NASA and independent educational outreach, which eventually led to her joining the Department of Science/Mathematics Education at UT Dallas in 2002 as the physics and astronomy education specialist. Her work includes preK-12 curriculum development, design and delivery of professional development for in-service teachers, working directly with preK-12 students in and outside of classrooms, and education research with emphases in the design of effective professional development for teachers and in the development of science concepts and attitudes in learners of all ages. She is a passionate mentor to science students with an interest in educational outreach or science education research, and to teachers with a growing interest in science. Dr. Urquhart is also keenly interested in working with policymakers in education from early childhood through graduate school, especially with regard to teacher training and curriculum design.

Current Projects and Interests in Science Education

Educational Outreach for the Joint UT Dallas/NASA/Air Force CINDI Project

Dr. Urquhart serves jointly with Dr. Marc Hairston (Center for Space Sciences) as the Education and Public Outreach Lead (EPO) for the Coupled Ion Neutral Dynamics Investigation (CINDI) that will fly on the Air Force Communication/Navigation Outage Forecast System (C/NOFS) satellite. As part of the C/NOFS payload, CINDI is an ionospheric explorer. The CINDI educational outreach program focuses on formal (in-classroom) educational lesson plans, support materials, and professional development for teachers including stand-alone and embedded teacher workshops. The popular CINDI in Space comic book (available in English and Spanish) was created for the project by both Drs. Hairston and Urquhart in collaboration with Erik Levold, a student artist from the Minneapolis School of Art and Design. Dr. Urquhart also serves as EPO lead for an additional NASA Supplemental EPO grant with Dr. Phil Anderson (Physics/Center for Space Sciences).

Helping Students and Teachers Understand Scale in the Solar System and Beyond

One of the Dr. Urquhart’s longest standing educational interests has been to help students understand their “place in space”. Her NASA IDEAS grant-supported Stars and Planets project is a middle school astronomy curriculum designed to do just that. Stars and Planets began as a labor of love soon before she received her doctorate degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and grew from her experiences as both an astronomy instructor and adapting the Colorado Scale Model Solar System on campus of that institution for replication with elementary students. Dr. Urquhart’s interest in, and research on, the impact of student mental models regarding scale in the solar system has also been a major influence in the development of the CINDI educational materials and professional development program. Prior to her arrival at UT Dallas, Dr. Urquhart created a 3-D scale model activity as a supplement to NASA’s Saturn Educator Guide, and multiple versions of scale model solar system activities.

Teacher Learning in Long and Short-Term Professional Development Programs

Professional development associated with educational outreach usually involves short-term interactions (such as an hour-long workshop at a teacher conference) with some intensive workshops occurring over a day to a week. According to Knapp (2003, Professional development as public policy pathway in Review of Research in Education) long-term professional development (40+ contact hours) that provides for continuous, ongoing interactions is most likely to impact classroom teaching.

The comparatively short time periods for most educator workshops usually mean presenters share a small amount of content knowledge, or introduce teachers to some materials available for use in their own classrooms, but rarely both. Subjects presented are necessarily limited.

Neither short workshops nor typical isolated courses for teachers are well aligned with the National Science Education Standards for Professional Development. Dr. Urquhart has found in that in her own space science and physics educational outreach programs teachers generally rate both hour and week-long workshops as “excellent” and express enthusiasm for the materials presented, but also express concerns regarding the limited impact on their knowledge and ability to apply what they have learned. Frequent responses when asked what participants like least about the workshops are “Not enough time!” and “I wanted to learn more.” Teachers express enthusiasm for the materials/content presented, but concerns about their abilities to teach the content or use the activities with their own students.

Currently Dr. Urquhart is researching the impact of embedding both NASA and independent professional development programs originally designed for delivery in a workshop context into long-term professional development more consistent with the recommendations of the National Science Education Standards. Data collected from participants in the long-term programs is also being used to inform practices in the workshop context.

Two major areas of interest in this research program are:

  1. What fraction of workshop content is making an impact on teachers’ own understanding and
  2. What fraction of workshop content is making the transition to teachers’ classrooms and why?

One expected outcome of this work is to inform the practices of other providers of professional development in the education and public outreach context.

Development of Science Attitudes and Concepts

One of the most unusual areas of research for Dr. Urquhart deals with the development of science attitudes starting in early childhood. Starting in the fall of 2003, she began working regularly with children as young as 3 years of age providing science experiences and utilizing both a modified Draw a Scientist Test and interviews of children in and outside of her program. Dr. Urquhart’s work seeks to address several questions: What is the impact of early childhood science experiences on general attitudes toward science and scientists? When do stereotypical ideas of science and scientists form? Does early exposure to science process skills impact young childrens’ perceptions of science?

A related area is the formation of science concepts in young children. Many studies have documented common misconceptions in children from middle elementary school through adulthood. When and how do these misconceptions form?

Current Space Science Research

Dr. Urquhart’s most recent planetary science research, presented at the 2007 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, uses lunar surface temperatures derived from thermal infrared remote sensing to derive the fraction of meter scale and larger rocks on the lunar surface. Rocks represent a major landing hazard for Mars landers and similar landing hazards must be addressed for NASA’s future lunar exploration program. Working with Dr. Michael Mellon of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, she has created a state-of-the-art lunar thermal model that includes the effects of temperature dependent lunar thermal properties and accurate ephemeris data to model solar energy absorption and thermal emission for a period of 18 years (from 1990 to 2008) at specific longitudes and latitude on the lunar surface.

Of Related Interest

Short paper

Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics