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Should Math and Science Teachers Get Special Training?

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By Anne Jolly

Excited and inspired about the subjects they teach, math and science educators ideally want their classrooms to dive into real-world challenges. But they're faced with the predictable realities of the school day when designing their curriculum. Each year, students seem to lose interest as the subjects become more difficult and abstract. “And what use is this anyway?” students. Why should they learn it?

Though educators know that real-world application would help students engage more fully with the subjects and understand the vital role in solving real problems, they're overwhelmed by how to make this happen. Just a few of their obstacles:

  • “My school system has an obsessive focus on student testing, and that’s all they want me to teach toward – test objectives, test objectives, test objectives.”
  • “Our course of study has so many objectives to teach that I don’t have the time to go deeply into any one area – at least, not in the way that STEM teaching requires.”
  • “I have no control over what I teach or when I teach it. I have to stay with the pacing guide. I even have to teach flowering plants in January!”
  • “I don’t have time to teach STEM curriculum. In fact, I don’t even have time to plan STEM lessons. And I don’t have materials and equipment for hands-on activities in all the classes I teach.”

STEM teachers need ongoing professional development to strengthen and develop the expertise they need to teach these complicated subjects. To that end, some ideas:

  • Engineering experiences for teachers. These might be summer programs that allow middle-school teachers from STEM fields to work with engineers and scientists. Are there industries in your area that might provide those opportunities?
  • Summer STEM camps and workshops for teachers. These should use a problem-solving approach and provide teachers with tools to integrate STEM applications into their lessons.
  • Higher education partnerships. Nearby colleges might provide subject area updates to keep K-12 teachers of math and science on the STEM cutting edge.
  • Ongoing in-school collaboration among science and math teachers. Support is urgently needed so that teachers in these core STEM subjects can continue learning in their content areas, work together to develop and coordinate lessons, assess the impact on students, and hold each other accountable for incorporating STEM into their lessons.

This last piece should be considered seriously: Why not start a professional learning team to focus specifically on learning and teaching STEM? Without regular, supportive collaboration, intended changes in classroom teaching often don’t stick. Imagine that all teachers of math and science in your school are on board with teaching STEM and are continually working together to improve their teaching in this area. Imagine that school and system leaders have the courage to step off the test prep train and support a project- and inquiry-based approach to instruction. Would all this make a difference for students?

Despite pressures and roadblocks, well-prepared teachers who have opportunities for continual learning can succeed at developing successful STEM classroom initiatives on their own. Educators can build quite an extensive toolkit of resources from a number of reputable sites.

  • The PBS Teachers STEM Education Resource Center introduces a number of selected STEM education resources including lesson plans, videos, science, math, technology, and engineering resources at all grade levels. In fact, their STEM database contains nearly 4,000 science, technology, engineering, and math resources for grades preK-12.
  • Intel Design and Discovery site focuses on guiding students ages 11-15 to experience engineering through the design process. This site offers a comprehensive inquiry-based curriculum which introduces students to all the components of a good STEM project.
  • The Teach Engineering digital library provides teacher-tested, standards-based engineering content for K-12 teachers to use in science and math classrooms. Engineering lessons are mapped to educational content standards. In addition, suggested materials are usually inexpensive, and activities are relevant to children’s daily lives.
Anne Jolly was recognized as Alabama Teacher of the Year during her years as a middle grades science teacher. Today, she works with teacher teams in schools across the Southeast to help them take control of their own professional learning. Her practical how-to book Team to Teach is published by Learning Forward. A version of this post appeared on MiddleWeb.