Science News of the Week on February 10, 2012 announced (p. 642) a new report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). What caught my eye, under the headline "Report Outlines Steps to More U.S. Science Degrees," was the line "that faculty in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields need to be trained to become better teachers." This drove me to the PCAST source, Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (February 2012), where I located various recommendations in addition to the one above.
The recommendations are notable for many reasons: they name names, stipulate dollar allocations, and seem bent on coordinating executive agencies. Indeed, the report calls for creation of a "STEM Institutional Transformation Awards" competitive grants program at NSF (p. iv), and suggests that "funding could come from enactment of NSF's proposed Widening Implementation and Demonstration of Evidence-Based Reforms (WIDER) program. . ." Not to ignore other R&D agencies, PCAST also advises that "to train future faculty, federal research agencies should require all graduate students and postdoctoral fellows supported by federal training grants to receive instruction in modern teaching methods."
The key PCAST recommendation on training better teachers is reminiscent of an NSF program, Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (or GK-12 for short), which was terminated last year, after achieveing its objectives over 11 years, according to the NSF. Its website states that the "Program supports fellowships and training for graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Through interactions with teachers and students in K-12 schools, graduate fellows can improve communication and teaching skills while enriching STEM content and instruction for their K-12 partners."
Why the disconnect? The GK-12 Program, since its inception in 1999, funded over 200 projects in more than 140 different universities throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. It received a glowing third-party evaluation in 2010 which in November 2010 cited support of over 7000 fellows, involved 9000 K-12 teachers, and benefited as many as 600,000 K-12 students. It sought to do what the PCAST report advocates.
Details of its other contributions are posted here.
If we value the pedagogical skills of our STEM Ph.D.s, we should support their development. Independent researchers should have educational value both to themselves and those who come behind them, especially if federal funds have supported their career evolution. GK-12 does that by design, the only program in the NSF portfolio to do so.
Of course, the re-labeling of initiatives and programs is a long-time political strategy to make old seem new. But in the case of GK-12, a priority has been replaced, despite PCAST exhortation, by nothing quite like it at NSF.
A rose by another name? I don't think so.