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An alternative path to teaching: Experience meets barriers

In 2000, I was downsized from my job as an analytical chemist for a leading manufacturer of laboratory instrumentation. I had worked for the company for more than 20 years. But when my division got sold, the new management decided that my position as a senior scientist would be eliminated. I was devastated. Not only because I felt they didn't value my contribution, but also because it happened to be the day before my 50th birthday.

Ever since my two children began kindergarten, I had often thought about going into teaching. But I put the teaching thing on hold and took up science writing. I started writing directly for journals and then acquired a small number of corporate clients for whom I wrote magazine articles, newsletter pieces, and customer case studies. I was also misguided enough to spend two years writing two chemistry textbooks.

I did this for about eight years, until a lull in my freelance writing activities led me to volunteering with the AAAS Senior Scientists and Engineers STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) program, which puts retired scientists and engineers back into the classroom. I thought it was the next best thing to teaching.

I wanted to see if I was suited to the profession, as I wasn't doing a great job of convincing my two daughters that chemistry was a compelling subject. After a year of volunteering at a local high school, I was convinced that I wanted to teach. I was supporting three chemistry teachers by introducing real-world applications of chemistry into the curriculum. The students saw a side of chemistry they had never seen before. The teachers saw the benefits in this. And I found it very rewarding.

That's where aspiration meets reality. When I investigated what it would take to become a teacher, I couldn't believe how complicated it was. Here I was with a graduate degree in analytical chemistry and over 40 years of experience. Yet I was being asked to sign away two years of my life to get certified. There were accelerated programs, but it would still take me 12-18 months to become a teacher.

It didn't make sense. I have great respect for the chemistry teachers I support. But, while they were very enthusiastic and talented, most of them had gone straight from college into the classroom. They had no real-world experience with the subject.

If we are to encourage experienced scientists and engineers to go into the teaching profession, we have to make it easier for them to surmount the certification barrier. As reported in an earlier blog, 15-year-olds in the United States are falling way behind the rest of the world in science and math literacy. So we need experienced scientists and engineers to help teach the next generation.

There is no question that having professionals like me involved in teaching our children about the wonders of science would make a huge difference in their understanding of these subjects -- and perhaps their career choices as well.

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