Introducing Sarah Frodsham

Supporting our DPhil students to become independent researchers in their own right is a top priority for Sarah, who works in our Graduate School.

What is your role here at the Department?

I work in collaboration with Alistair Beecher, Idalina Baptista, Amy Crickmay-Heraty and David Graham to develop, run and teach on a programme of training for doctoral students. This programme is designed to support DPhil students to become independent researchers. The students are from a wide variety of interdisciplinary backgrounds – the health sciences, the humanities, the social sciences – and each comes to us with their own unique research perspectives. Supporting our graduate students, nearly all of whom are distance learners, is a top priority.

I also facilitate and teach on a number of short accredited courses that run throughout the year. ‘Mixing it Up’ explores the advantages and challenges of mixed-methods research, and ‘Digital Ethnography’, acquaints students with using digital data sources (such as mobile phones and GPS) in their research.

A new short course that is currently under development is ‘The Secret Life of Research Interviewing’. Research interviews seek to go beyond the spontaneous conversations that take place every day. More specifically, they are used in research to find out about those things we cannot directly observe – for instance, to uncover emotional responses, thoughts and intentions. Effective research interviewing opens doors to historical cultural events and the meaning people attach to them. Interviewers and interviewees see events through their own unique lenses, and this is what the new course will explore.

What is your academic background and your area of research?

My undergraduate degree is in molecular and human biology, obtained from Oxford Brookes University, where I attended as a full-time mature student. I followed this with an MSc in Structural Biology from Birkbeck, University of London, which I studied as a part-time distance learner. For my PhD, I moved into the social sciences, examining the nature of creativity in primary school science teaching. Thus, I have traversed from the hard sciences through to a social sciences landscape.

Whilst completing my PhD (and through subsequent post-doctoral positions since 2013) I was fortunate enough to be involved in numerous research projects – such as exploring Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects through the medium of European folk tales, and examining how children benefit from interacting with iPads during science lessons. I’ve had work published in collaboration with my research peers.

How does your work with younger students inform your work with older students?

Much of my research involves UK primary school teachers and learners (ages 5-11), and their perspectives of science. By researching how science teachers bring creativity to their classrooms, and how this empowers learners to be creative themselves, I have come to understand the different opportunities that a teacher can offer their students, no matter their age, so they can facilitate their own learning.

For instance, I recently worked with my DPhil students, analysing excerpts of research observational transcripts, and suggested a framework into which the excerpts might be structured. Then, working in groups, rather just watching me demonstrate, the students discussed and debated the merits of the framework and categorised the transcript excerpts, with each of them approaching the task from a very different research perspective, The discussion was lively – and in the end they came up with new understanding, derived through collaboration across their subject disciplines.

Your bio on our website refers to you as a 'positivist' researcher - what is this, and how does it play out in your work?

Within my research, I hold two positions which could be considered as being in tension. One is positivist (being formerly a scientist using systematic methods of data analysis) and the other interpretivist (meaning that I examine interactions and construe meaning). This dual positioning is not a weakness; I consider it to be a strength because continued reflection between these two stances has enabled me to examine my research critically through contrasting lenses.

One of your research websites takes the well-known acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) and turns it into STEAM by adding 'Arts'. Can you elaborate on this?

Because my PhD was nominally focused in science, and because I had interests in mathematics and the arts, in 2018 I was invited to co-convene a STEAM research group at Oxford Brookes University. The group brings people from different disciplines together to foster argument and constructive debate from a wide range of perspectives.

STEM focuses mainly on scientific concepts, but STEAM looks at the same concepts through an arts lens. Think of Leonardo da Vinci, who used his creative talents to explore the natural world through all these disciplines.

Definitions and the purposes of STEAM education and research vary. Indeed, STEAM can be considered as either transdisciplinary (transcending the disciplinary perspectives), interdisciplinary (integrating knowledge and methods from different disciplines), multi-disciplinary (scholars from different disciplines working together, drawing on each other’s expertise) or cross-disciplinary (viewing one discipline from the perspective of another). These discussions about ‘what is STEAM’ are ongoing and no doubt will be debated for many years to come.

What’s ahead for you?

As a Departmental Lecturer, a major part of my role will be to support our DPhil students to become independent researchers in their own right, and to provide them with opportunities for collaboration, both within the Department and across the wider University.

I will also continue to develop my research across STEAM disciplines, and to continue my professional academic development whilst reflecting on my current projects. This will inform further publications and extended iterations of research – hopefully with familiar and new collaborators alike.

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Published 27 May 2022