Paid professional development key to teaching STEM effectively

Paid professional development key to teaching STEM effectively
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It was the type of moment every educator lives for. As I walked around the room, the genuine fascination and the sparking of ideas were almost palpable. My pupils were in the thick of extracting DNA from a strawberry, and I heard one say that her mind was being blown by the day’s activity. As a professor of engineering, I always thrill to the sounds of my students’ excitement over the concepts we’re learning in class — but this particular satisfaction ran deeper.

After all, the subjects of my instruction that day were not undergraduates or any younger; they were all science teachers themselves. The techniques and activities we were teaching to the group soon could be igniting similar excitement in the minds of hundreds of middle-schoolers.

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Perhaps it’s surprising that science teachers would find themselves in a classroom, themselves the ones eager to learn, but it really shouldn’t be. The foundation upon which science teachers base their curricula is shifting in many states, but in too many districts across the country, this shifting ground has not been accompanied by practical — and paid — opportunities for teachers to catch themselves up to where science instruction is headed.

The Next Generation Science Standards were published in 2013 after a multi-state effort to define the skills K-12 students need to master before graduating so they can thrive in today’s in-demand jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (which together comprise STEM). Since then, 19 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards, and another 21 states have developed and adopted similar ones.

In Louisiana, where I live and teach, this is the first school year in which K-12 students will be tested according to our state’s new science standards (largely modeled on the NGSS). This represents Louisiana’s first update to the standards in 20 years, and necessitates some major changes to science classrooms. Rather than encouraging students to memorize a host of facts, the new standards prioritize firsthand data-gathering, critical thinking, investigation and collaboration. As science classrooms shift to mimic something more like mini-laboratories, science teachers need to do some shifting of their own.

The new standards are, without a doubt, a significant improvement upon those they replace. But it’s also true that they present a real problem for many of the teachers expected to teach to them: They demand a transformation in classroom culture, require the purchase of new classroom materials and the development of new lesson plans, and ask teachers to sharply revise how they conceive of their own roles in the classroom. What’s more, a significant proportion of teachers have been left to navigate this choppy transition with minimal support, leaving many of them feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.

At the Tulane University Center for K-12 STEM Education in New Orleans, we’ve tried a few different approaches to helping teachers develop the skills and confidence they need to bring the new science standards to life in their classrooms. Through this process, we’ve done some learning of our own.

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For six years now, we’ve hosted four all-day Saturday events per year for fifth- through seventh-grade students on Tulane’s campus. Students participate in hands-on workshops in science and engineering led by Tulane faculty and graduate students. Then, a year and a half ago, with Louisiana’s new science standards set to make their big appearance, we decided to invite teachers, too.

Educators attend the same workshops as students (in teacher-only groups) and get to work on a project such as testing the absorbency of different brands of baby diapers by examining the hydrogels in them, finding out if monarch butterflies can survive migration south by exploring their wing shape, testing water quality indicators of water samples from the swamps around New Orleans, or, of course, extracting DNA from fresh fruit. At the end of the day, or through a collaborative lunch, we lead teachers in a discussion of how to integrate these types of activities into their classrooms. When the teachers leave campus, they take with them all of the materials necessary to lead the same activities in their own classrooms as well as curriculum aligned to the new science standards.

There’s one message we’ve received loud and clear since we began inviting teachers to campus for our STEM workshops: This type of professional development should be considered an expected — and therefore compensated — part of an educator’s job. During the 2017-2018 school year, none of our workshops came with stipends, and a total of 26 teachers (counting repeats) participated across four events. So far in the 2018-2019 school year we’ve hosted two such events — both with $50 stipends offered to each teacher — and attendance has more than doubled. Already 28 teachers have attended this school year — and 10 of those teachers attended both of our fall workshops.

Our takeaway: If this type of training is integral to teaching science as it ought to be taught to today’s students, then we should signal that by offering compensation for it.

In an effort to support and encourage STEM education programs such as ours, Louisiana’s state government, through its Board of Regents, launched in late 2017 the Louisiana Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Advisory Council (LaSTEM for short). Part of what LaSTEM will do is bring together a pool of resources and collaborators that the state’s universities and nonprofits can draw from in developing and expanding teacher-training programs like ours. We’re hopeful about this initiative, and expect that its support can help us extend our reach, train more STEM teachers and offer them the paid professional development they deserve.

More state governments should take similar steps to ensure they can provide public support for paid professional development for teachers of STEM subjects. With such support more widely available, STEM teachers would develop deeper confidence with new instructional techniques, students would be more engaged and empowered in the classroom, and the new science standards would have the chance to truly unfurl and drive long-past-due change in schools across the country. We’re past the point of experimenting on this issue; it’s time to get results.

Michelle Sanchez, Ph.D., is a senior professor of practice in engineering at Tulane University, director of the Tulane Science Scholars Program (one of Tulane's Pre-College Summer Programs) and director of Tulane’s Center for K-12 STEM Education.