Meeting the Demand for Future STEM Teachers

Third graders in Hofstra University’s STEM Studio ponder how to display the data generated from their pre-exercise/post-exercise pulse rate experiment. PHOTO CREDIT: COURTESY OF HOFSTRA UNIVERSITY

Third graders in Hofstra University’s STEM Studio ponder how to display the data generated from their pre-exercise/post-exercise pulse rate experiment. Photo courtesy of HOFSTRA UNIVERSITY

The University of Virginia (U.Va.) made headlines in August when it announced its new five-year, undergraduate dual-degree program that will allow students to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in teaching, along with a license and endorsement in chemistry, physics, or math. U.Va. joins other universities around the country in offering these programs to meet the demand for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers.

“The impetus [for U.Va’s new program] is the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS),” says Jennifer Chiu, assistant professor in the university’s Curry School of Education. The new standards “place a lot of emphasis on engineering, but most science teachers have a background in science, not engineering. [The dual degree provides] an opportunity to encourage those with an engineering background to become science teachers and to incorporate engineering into science classrooms,” she explains.

The dual degree also was created “out of student interest,” says Chiu. Advisors have reported that engineering students have expressed interest in teaching, with many “suggesting a possible career pathway [of using] their engineering degree for the benefit of society,” she relates.

Students who complete the program “come out with an engineering bachelor’s degree and can work in industry, and are certified to teach in multiple content areas in Virginia.” They earn endorsements in physics, chemistry, and math because engineering degrees require a lot of basic foundation courses in those subjects; “biology and Earth science endorsements involve courses not as prevalent in the engineering major,” she explains.

U.Va. is offering scholarships to students who apply for the program. Ten $10,000 scholarships were awarded this semester, and “five or six” that will “fully fund the students for the master’s portion” are expected to be awarded next year, according to Chiu. “We’re trying hard to get people through [the program],” she adds.

The university also offers experiences to support students in becoming practicing teachers. “Field placements provide opportunities to teach peers science and engineering in methods courses, and weekly student teacher seminars present strategies and solutions to engage students in ways that reflect the practices of the NGSS,” she notes.

Recruiting Engineering Students

Last winter, Philadelphia’s Drexel University launched DragonsTeach, a new program that gives STEM majors the opportunity to minor in STEM education and obtain secondary teaching certification along with their STEM degree. DragonsTeach is a collaborative effort of the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Engineering, and the School of Education, and is supported by a $1.45 million grant from the National Math and Science Initiative. Eligible students include chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, and engineering majors.

DragonsTeach arose, in part, from Drexel’s desire to improve the quality of STEM education in the Philadelphia region, as well as its commitment to become the most civicly engaged university in the country. “As a result of the university-wide emphasis on community and education,” says Jason Silverman, DragonsTeach co-director, “a lot of our STEM students are interested in K–12 work, and through DragonsTeach, these students are able to provide meaningful STEM lessons and experiences to Philadelphia students while learning about a career in education.”

DragonsTeach is a partner of the nationally acclaimed UTeach program established by the University of Texas at Austin. “DragonsTeach is unique because it offers an opportunity to recruit engineering students into teaching,” says Jessica Ward, DragonsTeach director of operations. “Historically, UTeach has had difficulty recruiting engineers,” she reports.

Additionally, because Drexel is a five-year, co-op institution, “[t]his means that while students are completing their undergraduate degrees, they can also complete up to 18 months of work experience,” she explains, “so we are recruiting students who are already career-oriented.”

As an incentive beyond additional career options, DragonsTeach provides a stipend to students who earn a B or better in the two introductory recruitment courses: Inquiry Approaches to Teaching and Inquiry-Based Lesson Design. In these courses, DragonsTeach students teach lessons in elementary and middle schools, and “the younger students’ energy and interest in the STEM activities ultimately excite our DragonsTeach students about teaching,” Ward says.

The first two courses help students “know sooner rather than later if teaching is right for [them],” she notes. And after taking them, “even if you don’t want to teach, a lot of the skills learned are applicable to any career,” she contends.

For example, if a student opts for graduate school, he or she will find “the 5E model is good for a teaching assistant job in any major,” she points out. DragonsTeach courses foster communication and leadership skills; co-teaching prepares students “to work in a team environment”; and designing lessons increases creativity and shows students “how to get someone interested in the material you’re trying to convey,” she asserts.

DragonsTeach students teach high school students in subsequent courses, such as Knowing and Learning in Science and Mathematics, in which “students begin to delve into the NGSS,” Ward relates.

Focusing on Engineering Design 

Twenty years ago, Dave Burghardt, engineering professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, co-created a STEM master’s degree program with “children’s engineering and engineering design at its heart,” he explains. Elementary teachers in the program develop the “knowledge, skills, and attitudes essential for using informed engineering design as a pedagogical strategy in K–12 STEM education,” according to the program’s description. The goal is “design-based activity,” says Burghardt.

With that degree program in mind, Burghardt decided to create “an accessible bachelor’s degree in STEM as a co-major for elementary education majors.” The degree would not require a lot of math courses; it just required “basic algebra, logic, and [an] understanding of math systems, along with introductory, non-major courses in chemistry, biology, and astronomy, and lots of hands-on learning,” he asserts, noting that most bachelor’s degree programs for elementary education majors only require one math and one science course. The degree would feature two STEM capstone courses to provide a broad understanding of the scientific and mathematical foundations of the natural and human-made worlds.

Best of all, every course except the two capstone courses already were being taught at Hofstra. “It was an effective way to use existing resources and can be replicated easily at other schools,” he maintains. “The capstone courses make it unique.”

Burghardt’s creation, the “BA in STEM, always has engineering design at heart because it enhances a lot of kids’ creativity,” he contends. The degree features “children’s engineering as a part of elementary educators’ portfolio to make science and math more interesting in the classroom. And it does—we have research supporting that,” he declares.

Students earning the degree “have a broad background in all subjects, but also a strong STEM background,” he explains. He tells students, “It’s very accessible, and you’ll be able to enjoy [teaching the material] and impart that to your students. Kids sense when their teacher likes the subject matter…Even [if] you haven’t been a science star in high school, you can be a good STEM teacher.”

The degree makes students more marketable because “superintendents are looking for people with this background,” he reports, noting that the degree “is totally consistent with the NGSS because of its focus on engineering design. It makes it easier to teach to the NGSS.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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3 Comments

  1. Claire
    Posted October 2, 2015 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    These are great programs! My nephew did something similar at Cal Poly, but it was an engineering undergrad connected to a 14-month MBA program, so he graduated with a combo of scientific and business management knowledge. Good to see schools working to make their curriculum match up to real-world needs.

  2. Ezequiel Villanueva
    Posted October 7, 2015 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Dear Debra,
    Do you know any programs on which you can be certified as STEM Teacher close to Kansas if you are already a science teacher? Or, when can you obtain a PhD on STEM?
    Thanks,
    Ezequiel

  3. Debra Shapiro
    Posted October 8, 2015 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Hi, Ezequiel. I’m not sure what the universities in your area are offering. You might want to search online for the universities in your area and check their websites to see what courses or programs their education departments offer for obtaining STEM certification or a STEM doctoral degree.

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