How do we get more highly-qualified STEM teachers?


How do we get more highly-qualified STEM teachers?  Research shows that even for teachers with years of experience, it is important to continually seek more professional development, either in the form of an advanced degree or through relevant workshops.

The best teachers are those who continually learn from practice.  This is particularly true in STEM areas where fields are expanded and new types of jobs are being created almost daily. Students’ views of what it means to “do STEM” are greatly influenced by what happens in their classes on a day-to-day basis. For example, in some mathematics classrooms taking notes quietly and accurately repeating teacher-provided procedures is what it means to “do mathematics.” In contrast, a classroom in which students are expected to persist in solving non-routine problems and defending their solutions paints an altogether different picture of what it means to “do mathematics.” The latter type of classroom is more likely to support student identification and long-term engagement.
High failure rates in first year STEM courses and high attrition rates for STEM majors are two factors which cause students to get stuck in the “STEM pipeline”. This apparent bottleneck is having noticeable and marked effects on the national STEM workforce. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology challenged educational institutions to produce one million additional science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates to help fill the projected 2.4 million STEM jobs that may be vacant by 2018.  In order for students to be successful in STEM majors and careers, it is vital to have effective STEM K-12 teachers who provide a robust foundation for their students.Simply put, we need to provide more training for STEM teachers.
Professional development often introduces teachers to a framework meant to systematically increase their levels of reflective practice. Reflective practice is vital to the process of professional development.  It spurs an authentic transformation in understanding among teachers who “are discontent with their old practical theories and they find the new ones sensible, beneficial, and enlightening”.  In order to provide teachers with these “new theories,” it is important to have sustained professional development in which teachers are able to learn in a community of other teachers.  However, it is difficult for teachers in many parts of the country to find good professional development locally and even more difficult to find professional development opportunities that are sustained.  Teachers are therefore turning to online options, including online master’s degrees.  Most master’s programs last at least a year and many take advantage of a cohort model.  These models provide a group of teachers with experiences that enhance their teaching and student learning through a rigorous assessment of their own teaching practices in a reflective and collaborative manner.  This approach is beneficial for providing STEM teachers with a common vision, placing a focus on learning rather than teaching, instituting personal reflection, and group collaboration and accountability.  While sustained professional development does take place in other formats, online master’s degrees are filling a much needed gap in STEM teacher education. 
Jennifer Albert, Ph.D., is director of The Citadel’s STEM Center of Excellence, and an assistant professor in The Citadel’s M.Ed in Interdisciplinary STEM Education . She has taught at the high school and college level for more than 10 years and specializes in science education.

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