Change Agent: Cinzia Cervato, improving science education, rebuilding after a stroke

Cinzia Cervato teaches "GEOL 100: The Earth" during the first week of the fall semester.

Cinzia Cervato teaches about the Earth during the first week of the fall semester. Larger photo. Photo by Christopher Gannon.

AMES, Iowa – Cinzia Cervato wasn’t about to leave the first two weeks of “GEOL 100: The Earth” to improvisation.

“I need to be prepared,” said the veteran of nearly two decades in Iowa State classrooms. “Some people can improvise. I’m a planner. I want to have in my head all that’s going to happen.”

What’s going to happen during the first two weeks of her flipped classroom is an explanation and an invitation to the 150 students in her section who will be studying “everything about the earth.”

Since Cervato, a Morrill Professor of geological and atmospheric sciences, flipped her classroom in 2015 – less lecturing with more in-class, face-to-face and group activity – the change seemed to be working. The class average was trending up. And she thought more students were succeeding and getting a proper introduction to earth science.

But something happened last fall. Student evaluations let her know some students weren’t happy with the course. To paraphrase: “Dr. Cervato needs to teach more.”

She shared those evaluations with an off-campus mentor who said the evaluations weren’t really about her or her teaching. They were about misunderstanding a flipped classroom and what she was trying to do for students.

So, “I’m trying to get focused on them,” Cervato said. “I want to be explicit about why I’m doing what I’m doing – it’s for them. They’ll get better grades. They’ll understand our planet.”

She’ll also encourage them all to make an individual appointment so they can get to know her better, start to trust her judgment and maybe see her as more of a coach than somebody who delivers the same lectures year after year.

And she’ll let them know a little about how a hemorrhagic stroke on Dec. 20, 2013, changed her life, but couldn’t keep her out of the classroom.

No family history, no explanation

It was the Friday of finals week. The semester went well. Grades were already calculated.

There was freezing rain that morning. Cervato walked carefully from the parking lot to Science Hall, where she had a meeting scheduled with her department chair.

She thought she’d fall if she tried to cross the icy road. She called out to a stranger for help crossing the street. (It was Tammy Blakely who works as a support staffer for Student Academic Services in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences – Cervato and Blakeley are now friends.)

Then Cervato felt some pain behind her eye. She stopped in Science Hall II, remembering she still had grades to submit. But she wasn’t feeling right and sat down on some stairs.

“Then my head exploded and I couldn’t see anything and I was struggling to breathe,” she said.

Blakeley called 911. Cervato managed to call her husband, Paul Spry, a professor of geological and atmospheric sciences.

“I’m sick,” she told him. “I’m going to the hospital. I’m having a stroke.”

There was no family history. Cervato was healthy and had been going to the gym and staying fit. There was no explanation beyond a possible genetic condition that can lead to strokes.

She thought of her two children, Francesca and Ian.

“I knew I was dying.”

She sensed a light to her left. She heard an ambulance. And her husband’s voice.

“I think I’m going to make it.”

‘Are you teaching?’

Years later – after rehabilitation that included seven weeks in intensive care, 12 surgeries, 30 months with a feeding tube, painstaking physical therapy to relearn to walk and swallow and so many people offering to help with dinners or driving to appointments – Cervato came across a night nurse named Jenna who helped her just after the stroke.

Cervato didn’t recognize her – she couldn’t see when the nurse cared for her. But she remembered her voice.

The nurse certainly remembered her: “Are you teaching?” she asked.

“I went back to the classroom that next fall,” Cervato answered.

“Oh my gosh,” the nurse said. “You couldn’t talk about anything else.”

Why the focus on getting back to the classroom?

“One thing that kept me going was that I had to go back to the classroom,” Cervato said. “Even when I wasn’t able to sit up. Nobody could understand me. I lost my balance. I couldn’t swallow. I had to go back to teaching.”

Charles Kerton, an Iowa State associate professor of physics and astronomy, teaches “ASTRO/GEOL 106: Earth and Space Science for Elementary Education Majors” with Cervato and worked with her that first fall back in the classroom. He said she needed to be there.

“She’s a person who can’t sit still,” he said. “The thought of not being able to be in the classroom with students would have been bad for her. She needed to get back to a sense of normalcy.”

To her, normalcy means working at teaching and learning.

“She sincerely cares about her students’ learning,” he said. “It’s all levels of students in her classes – it’s not just the top performers. She wants everyone to achieve to the top level they can.”

He said Cervato applies that idea to her teaching.

Even after all these years in the classroom, she wants to be a better teacher.

“She’s still seeking out mentors,” he said. “She’s still looking for advice and suggestions on how to improve. That’s part of her personality.”

Toward better science education

Cervato’s work isn’t limited to the classroom. She’s also finding ways to improve science education so more students stick with science, technology, engineering and math.

She, for example, is a co-author of a paper published this summer by the Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory and Practice. The paper describes an early alert system that tracks academic preparation, early engagement in university life and midterm exams to identify first-year students at risk of leaving science and technology majors.

Craig Ogilvie, an Iowa State Morrill Professor of physics and astronomy and another co-author of the early alert study, said there’s so much more to Cervato’s work with science education than the latest research paper.

She, for example, has led a faculty learning community that’s been looking at ways to get more undergraduates involved in research projects. One strategy the community has discussed is finding ways to make research – not just lab instruction with scripted experiments – part of existing undergraduate courses.

She’s also helped lead the “Earth, Wind and Fire” student learning community for majors in the department of geological and atmospheric sciences. The idea is to build connections between young students and the department’s faculty, staff and older students.

“That’s a hallmark of who she is,” Ogilvie said. “She’s not only improving her own courses. She’s working with others to help them improve their courses.”

Cervato’s efforts to improve science education continued while she worked at her rehabilitation, her physical therapy and her recoveries from all those surgeries.

“Everybody who knows Cinzia is so in awe of what she’s done,” Ogilvie said. “She is an impressive role model.”

And so there she was just before the fall semester, working in her office off the back hallway of Science Hall, responding to student evaluations with plans and more plans.

“It’s crucial,” she said. “My goal this fall is to reconnect with my students.”