STEM Teacher Training Needs to Incorporate All Scientific Fields

Kathleen Bergin and Shirley Malcom sum up the major themes discussed at the 2018 Noyce Summit at the conference's closing session. | Colella Digital 2018

Cross-disciplinary scientific training and collaborations produce more effective math and science teachers and enhance learning outcomes for elementary, middle and high school students, said participants at a conference co-hosted by AAAS.

The 2018 Noyce Summit, co-hosted with the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education, drew more than 470 teachers, future teachers, education researchers and school and university administrators to Washington, D.C., July 16-18 to share goals for future STEM teachers of K-12 students and document the progress they are already making to advance those goals.

Teachers need to help students acquire “the capacity to deal with real and complex problems, the type of problems we are confronted with in the real world: climate, energy, food security,” problems that require solutions that draw from an array of disciplines, said Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS’ Education and Human Resources programs.

Research shows that students are more engaged when their lessons incorporate real-world issues whose solutions require a convergence of scientific disciplines. Such an approach teaches students not just how to solve problems, it sparks curiosity about the world around them and furthers their learning, Malcom said.

Kathleen Bergin, co-head of the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program at the National Science Foundation, added that all players in the education ecosystem need to work more closely with each other to help STEM teachers interweave scientific disciplines and frame coursework around real-world challenges.

Noyce-funded researchers shared their work in poster sessions and workshops. | Colella Digital 2018

The Noyce program encourages STEM undergraduate and graduate students and STEM professionals with diverse work experience to become math and science teachers in K-12 classrooms. The program covers teacher training and supports the teachers as they work in school districts where teacher turnover rates are high, few teachers hold STEM degrees and high percentages of students live below the poverty line.

Since its launch in 2002, the Noyce program has produced more than 20,000 newly certified teachers, said Sandra Richardson, program director at the National Science Foundation. The program offers scholarships for undergraduate students with STEM majors who commit to teaching in high-needs schools, fellowships for graduate students and experienced “master teachers,” and funding for education research projects.

The summit is just one component of AAAS’ Noyce initiatives. Under a Noyce-funded grant, AAAS is working to develop a strong foundation of research on how best to prepare and train STEM teachers, especially those working in high-needs schools. After all, these teachers “build student knowledge and skills in STEM and help them to better understand how science impacts their daily lives and serves society, as well as help prepare the next generation of STEM professionals,” said Yolanda George, AAAS program director.

AAAS aims to provide resources and build a community among current and prospective researchers studying teacher preparation and the teacher education programs that put evidence-based changes in place. The goal is to create a research agenda and a blueprint for innovative STEM teacher preparation programs.

At the annual summit, Noyce participants shared how they are working to develop stronger and more supportive STEM teacher preparation programs and, in turn, more engaging and effective K-12 instruction in math and science.

The Noyce grant recipients presented 45 workshops and more than 100 posters to share their research and explore topics such as mentorship and other strategies for supporting teacher retention; how teachers can engage an increasingly culturally diverse K-12 student body; and multidisciplinary approaches like integrating engineering design into math and science instruction. Such diverse perspectives offered a glimpse of what STEM education might look like in the coming decade, Richardson said.

Cato Laurencin discussed the importance of convergence, both in his own research and in K-12 classrooms. | Colella Digital 2018

The summit focused on the future, with attendees looking ahead to improve STEM teacher education by 2026, the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States. Keynote speeches and discussion sessions also focused on the 10 research priorities unveiled by the National Science Foundation in 2016. One priority that echoed throughout the summit’s agenda was “convergence,” the notion that solving big problems requires knowledge gleaned from multiple disciplines and approaches – “the coming together of insights and approaches from originally distinct fields,” said Cato Laurencin, a professor at University of Connecticut and director of its Institute for Regenerative Engineering.

Advances in Laurencin’s own field have relied upon cross-disciplinary connections from materials science, nanotechnology, stem cell science, developmental biology and physics to work to regenerate tissues, organs and organ systems. The concept of convergence must be an integral part of teacher education and K-12 STEM instruction, Laurencin said.

“It’s important that students see examples of how convergence is at work,” Laurencin said, adding, with confidence, that this generation will embrace such an approach naturally.

Stephanie Virgilio, a first-time Noyce Summit attendee who teaches high school math in Windham, Maine, echoed the emphasis on community and convergence. Her takeaway from the summit: the necessity of “starting somewhere, starting small and not doing it alone.”

NSF’s Richardson said, “It is very rare that we get this many people under the same roof with the common vision and the common goal of moving teacher education forward.”

[Associated image: Colella Digital 2018]