I’ve spent a 26-year career as a science and STEM educator, first of children and now adults. “Lifers” like me have seen the education pendulum swing across a wide arc of changes in the theories and research on how children learn science and STEM best. And yet, in spite of all this attention, we continue to struggle when it comes to getting excellent, well-trained science teachers in front of all children—not just those who live in our wealthiest districts or attend private schools.
This ongoing crisis, which amounts to a dearth of high-quality science education, demands a sense of urgency from all stakeholders: teachers, parents, administrators, community and business leaders, higher education leaders, and politicians. As we prepare students for jobs of the 21st century, whether these students are college- or career-bound, we must have science teachers who are not only on the cutting edge of content and pedagogy, but also passionate and dedicated to engaging all children, regardless of their ZIP codes.
We must have a more concerted system for preparing and supporting prospective science teachers. Preservice programs need to work closely with pre-K-12 schools and districts to ensure that teacher training reflects state and local trends in education, such as the growth in the fields of science and engineering. Teachers need ongoing professional time and opportunities provided by national, state, and district initiatives to enhance their own knowledge and adjust their instruction to help their students become nimble enough to face the challenging demands of the workplace. Learning should be an ongoing process for students as well as teachers, regardless of how long they’ve been in the profession.
Teacher-support programs and enrichment initiatives can be plentiful, but how powerful are they? We should capitalize on those with the greatest potential to coordinate a systemic plan for teacher improvement. The National Science Teachers Association, on whose council I sit, recommends that teacher-induction and -preparation programs focus not only on pedagogy, but also on establishing strong content knowledge. One way to make the process more effective is for induction programs to make sure that candidates understand what students must learn, as well as how they best learn.
We must have a more concerted system for preparing and supporting prospective science teachers."
The National Research Council’s 2011 “A Framework for K-12 Science Education” and the 2013 Next Generation Science Standards, which are based on the NRC framework, outline a broad set of expectations for K-12 students in science and engineering. These documents recommend improving K-12 science education within three dimensions of learning: science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and the core ideas in four disciplinary areas (physical sciences; life sciences; earth and space science; and engineering, technology, and applications of science).
How do we ensure that all students have access to well-trained and qualified science teachers? Education Week Commentary invited teachers, professors, and teacher-educators across the country to weigh in on this pressing challenge. This special section is supported by a grant from The Noyce Foundation. Education Week retained sole editorial control over the content of this package; the opinions expressed are the authors’ own, however.
For the first time, these two documents address what science education should look like and how each dimension must be integrated into a set of standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessments if we are to truly support students’ meaningful learning in science and engineering.
STEM business and industry partners also have a key role to play in providing teacher training. They have access to a wealth of opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math for students and their teachers, and they have the financial capital to sustain ongoing initiatives.
One of Arizona’s power utility companies—theSalt River Project—provides in-state teacher-training workshops and educational grant funding related to the science behind water and energy industries. Nationally, the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy trains teachers in grades 3-5 to deepen their understanding of mathematics and science content and increase their use of research-based instructional resources aimed at enhancing students’ learning. These business and industry partners also benefit: They want to recruit from a well-prepared, STEM-ready workforce.
These are but two examples of many across the country, but all teachers should have access to such resources.
It isn’t an easy or inexpensive task to prepare science educators to be the most effective teachers for all our students, but the rewards are great. A high-quality science and engineering education for every child would have a positive impact on our nation, ensuring that all students are prepared to face the science and engineering challenges of the 21st century.
An education that includes excellence in the STEM disciplines is no longer an option or just an elective course. We are facing tremendous global crises that include hunger, climate change, and cancer. We need future generations who are prepared to take on these and other issues and design solutions so that our world can be a safer and healthier one.
Coverage of science learning and career pathways is supported in part by a grant from The Noyce Foundation, at www.noycefdn.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2016 edition of Education Week as Ideas for Growing a Bigger, Better STEM Field