Photo of Varelas, Maria

Maria Varelas, PhD

Professor of Science Education


Building & Room:

3513 ETMSW


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

Office Phone Voice:

(312) 996-2454

Related Sites:


Maria Varelas is Professor of Science Education at UIC’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and an Honors College Faculty Fellow. She was also the inaugural Director of the UIC Center for the Advancement of Teaching-Learning Communities. With a BSc in physics and PhD in education, she co-directs the PhD in Mathematics and Science Education and MEd in Science Education programs.

Her research has focused on exploring possibilities and challenges related to student learning when practicing and preservice K-12 teachers consider and practice science education in urban schools aiming at equity and social justice. With multi-year and multi-collaborator NSF grants totaling over $9 million, Prof. Varelas has been working towards changing the master narrative of how students of color in urban schools engage with science and what understandings they could help generate for science education practice and research.

Dr. Varelas’ two books center on two foci of her work, multimodal integrated science-literacy enactments in elementary school classrooms (Children’s ways with science and literacy: Integrated multimodal enactments in urban elementary classrooms) and identity construction of students and teachers (Identity construction and science education research: Learning, teaching, and being in multiple contexts). She has also published over 60 articles and chapters, most of which have been co-authored by teachers and graduate students with whom she develops long-term partnerships that sustain each other’s thinking.

Engaging in theoretical and empirical explorations of what it means to learn and teach science using primarily qualitative, interpretive approaches, Prof. Varelas has studied various interplays that are enacted in science classrooms, namely the interplay between developing theories and collecting and analyzing data, between the individual student and the larger classroom community, between the teacher and the learner, between affective, cognitive, and social dimensions of experience, between reading, writing, drawing, talking, and doing science, between an individual’s construction of meaning and the existing socio-cultural practice of science, between content learning and identity construction, and between structures and forms of agency.

Dr. Varelas has held leadership positions in the field of science education including serving as: associate editor of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching; section editor of the Learning section of Science Education; elected member of the Board of Directors of NARST: A Worldwide Organization for Improving Teaching and Learning Through Research; Chair of NARST’s Research Committee; Higher Education editor of Spectrum–the official journal of the Illinois Science Teachers Association; consultant to the 2012 US Framework for K-12 Science Education; and member of NSF Committees of Visitors.

Since 1993, Prof. Varelas has been teaching in UIC’s elementary teacher education programs and doctoral programs, and has 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

Polk Bros. Foundation, Integrated Science-Literacy Enactments (ISLE) in Chicago Public School (CPS) Early Elementary Grades, 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

Selected Publications

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. (2018). Dialectical relationships and how they shape (in)equitable science learning spaces and places. In L. Bryan & K. Tobin (Eds.), 13 questions: Reframing education’s conversation: Science (pp. 183-191). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

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.

Professional Leadership

Board of Directors Elected Member, NARST: A Worldwide Organization for Improving Science Teaching and Learning Through Research

Section Editor, Science Education

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

Chair of the Research Committee, NARST: A Worldwide Organization for Improving Science Teaching and Learning Through Research

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


1992 - Ph.D., University of Illinois at Chicago, Science Education
1988 - M.S., University of Rochester, Education
1985 - Secondary School Physics Teacher Certification
1985 - B.S., University of Athens, Greece, Physics

Research Currently in Progress

Varelas, M., Segura, D., & Bernal-Munera, M. (2018). Constructing identities as science teachers seeking equity and excellence. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Chappell, M., & Varelas, M. (2018). Ethnodance and identity: Black students representing science identities in the making. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Varelas, M., Menig, E., Wilson, A., & Kane, J. (2018). Competence, commitment, choice and the intermingling of identities: A Black student in a middle-school science class. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Morales-Doyle, D., Varelas, M., Segura, D., & Bernal-Munera, M. (2018). Pre-service secondary science teachers developing sociopolitical understandings: The work-of-teaching and the structure-agency dialectic.  Manuscript submitted for publication.

Batres, B., & Varelas, M. (2018). Identity avatars and concept maps: Bridging science content learning and identity construction. In progress.

Chappell, M., & Varelas, M. (2018). Ethnodance and science identity: Black students making sense of their sense making. In progress.

Kotler, R., Varelas, M., Phillips, N., Tsachor, R., & Woodard, R. (2018). Dramatizing science ideas: Multimodal science learning and generative engagement in urban elementary classrooms. In progress.

Natividad, H., Varelas, M., Phillips, N., Tsachor, R., & Woodard, R. (2018). Science theater by minoritized students: Multimodality, meaning making, and science expertise. In progress.