Training the Next Generation of STEM Teachers, Pt. 1: The Crisis

September 3, 2013

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Much has been said about American students falling behind in STEM-related learning. Although there is not a singular reason for this problem, a growing number of experts point to a crisis-level shortage of knowledgeable and effective STEM teachers.

Industry leaders across the nation have been sounding an alarm, declaring an inability to find the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) talent.

Only 31 percent of eighth graders in the U.S. have math teachers who earned an undergraduate degree in math, while less than half (48 percent) of eighth graders have science teachers with an undergraduate degree in science, according to findings reported in nonprofit initiative Change the Equation’s 2012 Vital Signs.

At the same time, less than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree. Most students who leave STEM majors do so after taking introductory science, math, and engineering courses. Among the most cited reasons these students abandon a STEM curriculum are ineffective and uninspiring teaching methods in introductory STEM classes.

It is this reality that has made the emphasis on educating, recruiting, and retaining STEM-qualified teachers all the more important across the nation.

“STEM is becoming an issue in this country for the future success in a growing global economy,” said Meredith Mannebach, program manager of Utah’s new STEM Action Center. “Because this is an issue for students, this is an issue for teachers.”

Experts say the nation faces a shortage of qualified teachers in a variety of STEM fields.

“The best example is in physics, which is a critical pre-requisite for STEM careers," Dave Saba, COO of the National Math & Science Initiative (NMSI), told IMT Career Journal. "According to a physics task force, we hire approximately 3,200 new physics teachers each year, and only 1,100 of those have a degree in physics or physics education.”

Formed to improve students’ performance in STEM subjects and equip them for careers in those fields, NMSI’s programs aim to transform teaching, schools, and education. Today, NMSI is focused on what it considers the three most critical areas for restoring America’s competitiveness through STEM: promoting rigorous STEM training for teachers; ensuring that every student has a STEM teacher with deep content knowledge; and ensuring that more high schools become centers of college and career readiness.

From NMSI’s experience with more than 462 schools, the group has concluded that a larger number of qualified teachers are needed to make courses more effective and more engaging.

“Instructors teaching STEM courses must have both deep content knowledge and the teaching experience and ability to deliver that knowledge to students. Having one without the other will not work,” Saba said. “Hands-on and project-based lessons can provide the inspiration, but unless they are tied directly to the content that students need to master for academic success, the lessons will fall short of solving the nation’s STEM crisis.”

In addition to NMSI, efforts led by groups such as 100Kin10 and Utah’s STEM Action Center also focus on highlighting and undertaking the challenge of preparing qualified STEM teachers on both the national and state levels.

100Kin10 was formed in 2011 to respond to what Maya Lundhagen, project director for the Opportunity Equation at the Institute for Advanced Study, calls “our urgent national need for 100,000 excellent STEM teachers over 10 years.” With Talia Milgrom-Elcott, Lundhagen currently coordinates 100Kin10 (which currently has more than 150 partners) on behalf of Opportunity Equation and Carnegie Corporation of New York.

“The STEM teaching challenge our nation faces is enormous: Reversing a decades-long weakness in the STEM disciplines and ensuring that all of our students have access to excellent STEM teaching so that they can acquire the STEM literacy necessary to succeed in our economy, be full participants in our democracy, and tackle the biggest challenges of the 21st century,” Lundhagen told IMT Career Journal.

The onus of training the STEM teachers as a means of shoring up a highly skilled STEM workforce should not be on academic institutions alone. To support teachers in a deeper content understanding of STEM, and to line up their STEM teaching abilities with the needs of industry, it is necessary for businesses and other key stakeholders to work with academic institutions.

“Science, technology, and engineering change at such a pace that it is difficult for a teacher to keep up to date on the latest and greatest,” the Utah STEM Action Center’s Mannebach told IMT Career Journal. “This is where we need to bring in industry to help support the teachers on what is current.”

“What we need to do is provide great real-world STEM experiences for teachers who have had exposure to industry. This can be done through an exchange or internship program with local industries in the summer,” Saba said. “On the flip side, we need great programs that can take someone with incredible content knowledge and provide them with the teaching experience, classroom management, strategies, and lessons to be an effective teacher.”

Ultimately, there are many ways to help ensure the nation’s education system provides the technical expertise necessary in the STEM workforce, but it must gain that expertise through “very high-quality programs that meet the needs of industry,” according to Saba. “Many of the programs do not.”

To explore some of NMSI, 100Kin10, and the Utah STEM Action Center’s specific programs and initiatives that are proving successful in expanding the pipeline of excellent STEM teachers, stay tuned next week for Part 2 of this two-part series.



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