Transforming STEM Classrooms

*This is an excerpt Grants Messenger winter newsletter and is authored by Tracy Springberry*

While 50 percent of the economic growth in the U.S. is in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), companies often cannot fill the skilled positions. Across the country, very few young people choose to pursue STEM fields because they find STEM too difficult or uninteresting.

One way to improve that situation, experts agree, is to hire outstanding STEM teachers who are able to excite young students about STEM and help them learn the challenging material.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has a severe shortage of STEM teachers; particularly those who understand STEM content deeply and know how teach it to students so they find it interesting and worth pursuing.

Enter the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program. This grant program, funded by the National Science Foundation, encourages students already majoring in a STEM field to complete that degree and receive a teaching degree and credential. The program offers students large scholarships in their junior and senior years to make this change.

In 2010, EWU received a five-year Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship grant for $1.2 million. Each year the program offers 12 EWU STEM majors $16,000 scholarships for their final two years of school. In exchange, a student earns a STEM degree, a BA in education and teaches in a disadvantaged school after graduation.

Keith Adolphson, associate professor of mathematics, and Heather McKean, senior associate of biology, applied for a Noyce grant because they wanted to educate outstanding STEM teachers who know their field and how to teach it. The Noyce scholarship allows them to entice some of the best STEM students into teaching, while providing a mechanism to give them extra mentoring so they are more likely to become excellent teachers.

Educational research has shown that inquiry-based pedagogy in the sciences and mathematics help students learn the subject matter while holding their interest. These are pedagogies where student learn by working together to solve problems.

These methods are not easy to use at first, says Adolphson. It can be particularly difficult if teachers have only experienced traditional instruction. While teachers learn inquiry methods in college, they often do not have such teaching modeled for them during student teaching and practicums. As they begin to teach, new teachers often find it simplest to teach as they were taught and have seen modeled, rather than trying the more challenging inquiry methods.

A more promising path to embracing inquiry-type pedagogies is experiencing them more fully in college and then receiving mentoring to learn the basic skills well enough to overcome the initial challenges. McKean likens the process to learning to water ski. The first few times, when you are being dragged through the water face first, it seems like the worst idea. However, later on, leaning back with skis bouncing over the water, nothing could seem better or easier. Experiencing this transformation is what McKean and Adolphson are hoping for with their Noyce scholars.

Noyce scholars observe master teachers, attend special sessions on pedagogy and student teach with exemplary teachers. As the first group of Noyce scholars moves into its second year, it appears they are committing to inquiry-based pedagogies. One young scholar, who had a difficult time launching his first inquiry-based lesson, presented on the benefits of the pedagogy to new Noyce scholars. McKean knew then that he understood inquiry’s importance for learning and saw his difficulty as a learning curve, not a flawed teaching method.

For McKean and Adolphson, one of the biggest surprises administering the Noyce program has been how few students are interested in the opportunity. They advertise widely. They also offer a summer program for five interns who are considering STEM majors. The interns do hands-on science activities with kids at local summer programs such as the YMCA and Mobius Science Center to learn how fun teaching science can be.

While six of the 10 interns over the past two years decided to become teachers, McKean and Adolphson still have had to work very hard to fill the 12 scholarship slots each year. Part of the problem is the program’s rigor. Noyce scholars must complete two intense, high-credit majors while participating in a specialized practicum and regular mentoring. Afterwards, students must teach in high-need schools. Even with the challenges, EWU filled their quota this year and was only two short last year. EWU is doing much better than other Noyce grantees across the country.

Clearly, it takes more than scholarship money to convince many students to move from science to teaching. For the future of U.S. economic competiveness, one can only hope that Noyce scholars, and other outstanding STEM teachers, will convince a few more of the younger generation to embrace STEM fields and become our future scientists, engineers and STEM teachers.