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Photo of Varelas, Maria

Maria Varelas, PhD

Chair & Professor of Science Education

Co-coordinator of MEd Science Education and PhD Mathematics and Science Education

Curriculum and Instruction

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers


Building & Room:

3513 ETMSW


1040 W. Harrison St. (MC 147), Chicago, IL 60607

Office Phone:

(312) 996-2454


Dr. Maria Varelas is Professor of Science Education and Chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC). She co-coordinates the Mathematics and Science Education PhD program and the Science Education MEd program, and was the Director of the UIC Center for the Advancement of Teaching-Learning Communities. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Her research focuses on exploring possibilities and challenges related to student learning when practicing and preservice teachers consider and practice science education aiming at equity and social justice. Using qualitative, phenomenological, narrative, multimodal discourse, ethnographic, and arts-based methodological approaches, and focusing on urban public-school classrooms, she studies what meaningful science learning and identity construction look like especially for minoritized students. Over the years, and with multi-year and multi-collaborator NSF grants totaling over $12M, her research has emerged and unfolded in collaborations with teachers, seeking to create together transformative and generative learning spaces and places, centered on students’ assets, agency, creativity, and voice, which challenge the power of restrictive structures and scaffold students’ creation of knowledge consequential for their futures and the future of their communities. She has published two books–Children’s Ways with Science and Literacy: Integrated Multimodal Enactments in Urban Elementary Classrooms and Identity Construction and Science Education Research: Learning, Teaching, and Being in Multiple Contexts–and over 70 journal articles and book chapters.

Dr. Varelas has held leadership positions in science education including: elected member of the Board of Directors of NARST: A Global Organization for Improving Science Education Through Research; Chair of NARST’s Research Committee; Chair of NARST’s Distinguished Contributions to Science Education Through Research Award Committee; editor of the Learning section of Science Education; associate editor of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching; consultant to the 2012 US Framework for K-12 Science Education; and member of NSF Committees of Visitors. She has been recognized as a University of Illinois Scholar, and a UIC Distinguished Researcher of the Year in Social Sciences and the Humanities. She has also received several teaching awards, including three Silver Circle awards (bestowed by graduating seniors), two Teaching Recognition Program awards (administered by faculty), and the Award for Excellence in Teaching (the highest UIC-wide teaching recognition).

Selected Grants

National Science Foundation, Science Education for Excellence and Equity in Chicago (SEEEC), PI

University of Illinois Presidential Initiative to Celebrate the Impact of the Arts and the Humanities, Young People’s Science Theater: CPS and UIC Students Creating Performances for Social Change, PI

National Science Foundation, Integrated Science-Literacy in Urban Early Elementary Classrooms: Exploring Scientific Understandings and Discourse Genres, PI

National Science Foundation, Scientists, Kids, and Teachers (SKIT): A GK-12 partnership with the Chicago Public Schools, Co-PI

National Science Foundation, Integrated Science Courses for Elementary Education and Non-Science Majors, PI

National Science Foundation, University of Illinois at Chicago Graduate Fellows in K-12 Education, co-PI

National Science Foundation, University of Illinois at Chicago–Community College Collaborative for Excellence in Teacher Preparation, co-PI

UIC Vice Chancellor for Research: Areas of Excellence Award, Content Learning and Identity Construction (CLIC): Science and Mathematics Learning among African American Students in Urban Elementary Schools, PI

National Science Foundation, Science Learning through Embodied Performances in Elementary and Middle School, PI

National Science Foundation, Monarchs and Milkweeds: A Partnership to Develop Integrated and Culturally Relevant Science Curriculum, co-PI

Selected Publications

Spezza, S. B., Varelas, M., Ashley, M. V., & Batista, D.  (In press).  “I’ve felt out of place sometimes in STEM but my cultural roots say otherwise:” Latina college students’ identity conundrums and opportunities in a science research internship. Cultural Studies of Science Education.

Varelas, M., Segura, D., Bernal-Munera, M., & Mitchener, C.  (2023).  Embracing equity and excellence while constructing science teacher identities in urban schools: Voices of new Teachers of Color.  Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 60, 199-233.

Varelas, M., Kotler, R., Natividad, H., Phillips, N., Tsachor, R., Woodard, R., Gutierrez, M., Melchor, M., & Rosario, M.  (2022). “Science theater makes you good at science”: Affordances of embodied performances in urban elementary science classrooms.  Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 59, 493-528.

Morales-Doyle, D., Varelas, M., Segura, D., & Bernal-Munera, M.  (2021).  Access, dissent, ethics, and politics: Pre-service teachers negotiating conceptions of the work of teaching science for equity.  Cognition and Instruction, 39, 35-64.

Chappell, M., & Varelas, M.  (2020).  Ethnodance and identity: Black students representing science identities in the making.  Science Education, 104, 193-221.

Varelas, M., Morales-Doyle, D., Raza, S., Segura, D., Canales, K., & Mitchener, C.  (2018).  Community organizations’ programming and the development of community science teachers.  Science Education, 102, 60-84.

Varelas, M., Tucker-Raymond, E., & Richards, K.  (2015).  A structure-agency perspective on young children’s engagement in school science: Carlos’s performance and narrative.  Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 52(4), 516-529.

Varelas, M., Martin, D. B., & Kane, J. M.  (2012).  Content learning and identity construction: A framework to strengthen African American students’ mathematics and science learning in urban elementary schools.  Human Development, 35, 319-339.

Varelas, M., Kane, J. M., & Wylie, C. D.  (2012).  Young Black children and science: Chronotopes of narratives around their science journals.  Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 49(5), 568-596.

Varelas, M., Tucker-Raymond, E., & the UIC Research on Science Learning Course Team.  (2022).  Scientific understandings and discourses: Trajectories of imaginaries in elementary school students’ learning in US classrooms and beyond.  In M. Atwater (Ed.), International Handbook of Research on Multicultural Science Education (pp. 297-328). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer-Kluwer.
(UIC Research on Science Learning Course Team composition in alphabetical order: Bonilla, D., Childress, T., Collins, D., Fernandez, D., Foster, J., Gustin, N., Ingham, L., Jones, J., McCartney, S., Nocella, M., Qazi, A., Santana, J., Tabora, J., Tysiak, K., & Woods, T.)

Professional Leadership

Board of Directors Elected Member, NARST: A Global Organization for Improving Science Education Through Research

Section Editor, Science Education

Associate Editor, Journal of Research in Science Teaching (JRST)

Chair of the Research Committee, NARST: A Global Organization for Improving Science Education Through Research

Member, National Science Foundation (NSF) Committee of Visitors (COV) for REESE and DRK-12 programs

Chair of the Distinguished Contributions to Research Award (DCRA) Committee, NARST: A Global Organization for Improving Science Education Through Research

Co-Organizer of AAAS Education Section’s inaugural Equity and Justice in Science Education webinar series, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

Co-Chair of the Early Career Research Award Selection Committee, NARST: A Global Organization for Improving Science Education Through Research

Consultant to the NRC Conceptual Framework to Guide the Development of Next Generation Standards for K-12 Science Education, National Research Council (NRC)

Higher Education Editor, llinois Science Teachers Association (ISTA) journal "Spectrum"

Notable Honors

2012, Distinguished Researcher of the Year, UIC

2008, University Scholar, University of Illinois

2006, Award for Excellence in Teaching, UIC

2013, Silver Circle Award for Excellence in Teaching, UIC

2019, Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science

2008, Great Cities Institute Faculty Scholar, UIC

2003, Silver Circle Award for Excellence in Teaching, UIC

2003, Teaching Recognition Program Award, UIC

1993, Outstanding Dissertation Award, American Educational Research Association–Division B: Curriculum Studies


Ph.D. in Education, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, Illinois
M.S. in Education, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York
B.Sc. in Physics, University of Athens, Athens, Greece

Licensures and Certifications

Secondary School Teacher Certification in Physics