Jan 31

Reported by Jermey N. A. Matthews in Physics Today, January 2011

Businesses, nonprofit organizations, and the White House are betting on K–12 STEM teachers to forestall the “gathering storm” forecasted by the National Academies.

For US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores, released last month, were a wakeup call. Once again, US high-school students ranked near the middle of the pack in science, math, and reading, the three areas of focus for the PISA, which tested 15-year-olds in more than 75 countries. In a press release, Duncan said that a slight increase in US students’ science ranking from below average is “not much to celebrate.” For a knowledge economy, “being average in science is a mantle of mediocrity.”

An astronaut exploring Mars is shown in this drawing by a third-grade student at Randolph Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. The student’s teacher, Matthew Tosiello, is a graduate of the Sally Ride Science Academy, which provides no-cost professional development workshops to elementary and middle-school teachers. (Image courtesy of Randolph Elementary School, VA.)

Duncan also took aim at what he felt distinguished perennial PISA front-runners South Korea and Finland from the US. “[Their practices] show clearly that America has to do much more to elevate the teaching profession, from the recruitment and training of teachers to their evaluation and professional development.”

Duncan’s response reflects the Obama administration’s support for initiatives that aim to recruit and develop K–12 math and science teachers. Last September, President Obama unveiled his administration’s plan to recruit more than 10 000 new science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers in the next two years. He also announced the launch of Change the Equation, or CTEq, a nonprofit coalition of more than 100 businesses working together on STEM education outreach.

Educate to Innovate

The teacher-recruitment campaign was inspired by a new report on STEM education from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and will be coordinated through http://www.teach.gov, a Department of Education website. “Improve STEM teaching” is listed as one of the three “critical” goals of CTEq; the nonprofit coalition supports teacher-development programs such as the Sally Ride Science Academy, which gives elementary- and middle-school teachers tools for encouraging students to pursue math and science careers.

The PCAST report also urges federal support for a national master teachers corps that “recognizes, rewards, and engages the best STEM teachers and elevates the status of the profession.” Among other recommendations are that corps members’ salaries be supplemented by about $15 000 per year. The administration is taking the PCAST recommendations seriously, says physics Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, who was recently appointed associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. ”Of all the  recommendations, the idea of developing more and better-trained STEM teachers is one clearly embraced by everyone, from the president on down to me.”

Physics Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, a long-time education activist in science, technology, engineering, and math, now heads the science office at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is in the process of responding to a report on STEM education from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (Image courtesy of the White House.)

The PCAST recommendations echo those in the 2005 National Academies’ Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, which highlighted the nation’s low international standing in math and science education. In September 2010, the Academies released an update—subtitled “Rapidly Approaching Category 5”—that praises the bipartisan passage in 2007 of the America COMPETES Act for promising more funding for science research and education (see Physics Today, September 2007, page 34). But the Gathering Storm update also exposes an educational system that is still lagging and that has produced, for the first time in US history, a generation less educated than the previous one.

The industry coalition CTEq is one of several initiatives in the Obama administration’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign, which also includes an annual White House Science Fair and National Lab Day, an annual celebration preceded by year-round collaborations of citizens with STEM teachers on classroom projects. Teacher recruitment and development programs are supported by CTEq members through funds or volunteers. For example, Agilent Technologies, Amgen, and Bayer fund the NSTA New Science Teacher Academy, managed by the National Science Teachers Association, to provide new teachers with mentors and other resources. “Our impact per dollar is much greater when we focus on getting science teachers more excited and competent in what they’re doing,” says Lynn Nixon, global education program manager at Agilent Technologies Foundation.

Beyond the officially sanctioned White House efforts, several other teacher-focused initiatives stand as model programs. They include the Center for Nanoscale Systems’ Institute for Physics Teachers (CIPT) at Cornell University, which since 2001 has been offering high-school physics teachers summer workshops on contemporary topics such as nanotechnology, photonics, and optical communication. In addition, the CIPT maintains an online database containing instructions for 40 lab experiments and an equipment lending library that allows the more than 1300 CIPT alumni in the US to borrow power supplies, multimeters, and other materials needed for the experiments.

“Last year we had over 200 requests for hardware,” says CIPT’s director of education programs, Julie Nucci, who adds that the CIPT-developed experiments are being translated into Spanish in collaboration with the University of Puerto Rico. Nucci says the CIPT is pursuing alternative funding to replace its current NSF grant, which expires in September.

Arts major to physics teacher?

Whereas the CIPT is training current high-school physics teachers, the PhysTEC program focuses on nurturing new ones. Working through university physics departments, PhysTEC attracts physics and engineering majors and helps them get certified as high-school physics teachers (see the article by Theodore Hodapp, Jack Hehn, and Warren Hein in Physics Today, February 2009, page 40). The PhysTEC program is managed by the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers and supported by the American Institute of Physics (AIP, which publishes Physics Today). At least 17 US physics departments have adopted the program since it began in 1999.

“There’s a need for about 1200 new physics teachers per year to meet the demand of the more than 1 million students now taking high-school physics, and we’re still only producing 400,” says Theodore Hodapp, APS director of education and diversity. Many current high-school physics teachers aren’t trained physicists. According to AIP’s Statistical Research Center, 54% of the roughly 27 000 high-school physics teachers in the 2008–09 school year did not have a physics degree. That percentage doesn’t include those who were subsequently certified to teach high-school physics. “Sometimes it’s easy to look at numbers and to overlook what’s important, which is making sure that the teacher has the ability to actually teach,” says center director Roman Czujko.

“Give us a successful teacher, and we’ll teach him or her physics,” says Robert Goodman, 2006 New Jersey Teacher of the Year and director of the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning, which provides curricula, pedagogical tips, and classroom technologies to local high-school science teachers. The industry CEO turned physics teacher says his approach is to take skilled teachers from any discipline, including from the arts and other humanities, who have an interest in becoming science educators and train them using a curriculum he designed that teaches physics before chemistry and biology. “Physics first” has also been advocated by others, including Physics Nobel laureate Leon Lederman (see his Reference Frame in Physics Today, September 2001, page 11). In the year since the New Jersey center started its teacher recruitment and training initiative, Goodman says the number of physics teachers in Newark has already tripled.

The American dream in peril

Programs like Goodman’s are preferred by politicians who favor local advancement of education policies. “The federal government shouldn’t legislate [education] reform,” says Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), a PhD physiologist and former professor. To promote STEM, the federal government can inspire the nation by inviting scientists to the White House and recognizing them in other visible ways, Bartlett says. “Although most of the Nobel Prize winners in science still come from the US, we aren’t producing nearly enough scientists anymore. Now, the bright young kids are going into law and political science. We have enough lawyers and political scientists.”

The federal government can partner with local school districts through grants to help teachers prepare for the higher national standards expected for the future, says University of Maryland physicist James Gates, who cochaired the PCAST STEM education report. But no matter who’s pulling the education policy strings, “there’s a real crisis here,” says Gates. “We’re not talking about STEM just to produce more scientists and more engineers. We’re talking about it in order to give our economy a shot at producing the American dream for future generations. If we don’t get this right, the American dream is going to die.”

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