Precollege Science Teachers Need Better Training

U.S. science education is improving, but a few local programs are demonstrating how it can become even better.

Now and in the decades to come, science literacy may well be the defining factor for our success as individuals and as a nation. Indeed, U.S. global competitiveness and its national security rest firmly on our ability to educate a workforce capable of generating, coping with, and mastering myriad technological changes. In the summer of 2000 and again this past spring, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan broke with tradition and testified before Congress not about interest rates or inflation but about the importance of strengthening U.S. science and math education as the foundation to continued economic growth and national security.

Those planning to pursue science and engineering careers will need higher levels of science literacy than most, but perhaps not so obvious is the fact that even nonscientists will need a baseline level of science understanding if they are to become responsible citizens, capable of functioning fully in a technology-driven age. Yet, many of us who work in science and technology (S&T) fields do not believe that the country has made the full commitment to improving science education. We are routinely barraged by reports telling us that our students are simply not making the grade when it comes to science. From the National Assessment of Education Progress to the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), which periodically compares U.S. student performance in math and science to that of students from other countries, the news has not been favorable.

Recently, a spate of new reports has returned the issue of U.S. science education to center stage. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Science Board issued companion reports in the spring of 2004 that show that the United States is not producing the number of scientists and engineers it needs to fill a job sector that is growing far faster than any other. Nor can the United States continue to depend on the talents and contributions of foreign-born scientists who have filled these jobs for the past decade, the reports say, because these scientists are now presented with expanding opportunities elsewhere. Thus, the United States faces a major shortage of science and engineering talent at the same time that many other countries are closing the gap with U.S. research leadership.

This country has a science pipeline problem, a problem that doesn’t begin in college or high school. It begins in elementary school, as early as kindergarten. That is when we get the best first chance to grab students’ attention and keep them engaged and interested in science for a lifetime. That is also the time when students, if taught science in a hands-on, inquiry-based manner, begin to develop important lifelong science literacy skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking, and working in teams.

This is not necessarily news to science educators who have been involved in efforts to strengthen science teaching for the past decade or so. Scientists, business leaders, and educators now agree that more effort should be placed on K-12 science education, with increased emphasis at the elementary school level. They concur that the skills and techniques of precollege science teachers should be strengthened and expanded, and that science teaching resources, including curriculum, laboratory equipment, and information technologies, should be renewed and improved. Most important, they want science to be taught in a hands-on, inquiry-based way.

This kind of inquiry or experiential learning involves a shift from fact-intensive, textbook-based, lecture-driven science to idea-intensive, experiment-based science learning through project teamwork that is overseen and orchestrated by a skilled professional science teacher well schooled in and comfortable with science. It is a methodology that aligns with the National Science Education Standards and that has been promoted for the past decade or so by the National Science Foundation, National Science Teachers Association, and the National Science Resources Center (NSRC), among others.

What’s been done

The NSF has awarded tens of millions of dollars to various reform programs around the country in the past l0 years. NSF realized early on that science education reform was simply too massive an undertaking for school districts alone. With an emphasis on public-private partnerships, NSF required local school districts, communities, individuals, and private industry to come together if they were to receive funding for the purpose of reform.

Until now, these public-private partnership reform efforts have focused primarily on providing professional development for teachers already working in the classroom by retraining them to use inquiry-based methodologies, along with pedigreed curricula developed by organizations, such as NSRC and Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science. Simply put, these reform initiatives are based on the five elements of exemplary science programs identified by the NSRC: hands-on materials, centralized materials support, teacher training, assessment, and community support.

By all accounts, this has been an excellent way to begin tackling the pipeline problem. I know firsthand because Bayer Corporation through its Making Science Make Sense program has been closely involved in such reform partnerships since the early 1990s. And now we, along with a handful of other like-minded companies, including Merck, Dow, and Hewlett-Packard, are beginning to reap major rewards.

In the Pittsburgh area, where Bayer, along with other local educators and community and business leaders, helped to spearhead science education reform in 1992 by creating Allegheny Schools Science Education and Technology (ASSET) Inc., science achievement among elementary school students has soared in recent years. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center recently completed a five-year NSF-mandated evaluation of ASSET, including an assessment of student learning. The researchers used fourth and seventh grade science items from the 1995 TIMSS test to assess 1,500 ASSET fifth-graders. They found that, compared with the official TIMSS scores from the U.S. and high-performing countries, ASSET fifth-graders’ mean scores were significantly higher than U.S. students’ scores and competitive with seventh graders’ scores from high-performing countries such as Japan, Singapore, Korea, England, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. In addition, the total scores of students involved with ASSET since 1995 were significantly higher than those of students in districts that joined ASSET later, suggesting that sustained involvement in the program impacts positively on student learning.

A separate assessment done in 2002 shows some interesting and promising effects ASSET is having on students that go well beyond science. The assessment looked at the results of ASSET students on the Pennsylvania System Student Assessment tests. It found that both long-term and short-term ASSET students had dramatically improved their scores in math and reading. Researchers believe that the students’ achievement in these subjects is likely connected to the amount of professional development and standards-based materials used in ASSET classrooms.

Starting with five schools in two districts 10 years ago, ASSET has grown to the point where it supports the core science curriculum and professional development in 38 school districts in southwest Pennsylvania, reaching more than 3,000 teachers and 63,000 students. ASSET has also initiated the program in 35 school districts in eight surrounding counties. ASSET has been hailed by various education experts as a model public-private reform partnership, and Bayer has used it to create six other similar reform programs in West Haven, Connecticut, with the New Haven Public Schools; in Elkhart, Indiana, with the ETHOS Inc. program; with New Martinsville as part of the West Virginia Handle on Science Project; with Charleston, South Carolina’s Project Inquiry initiative; with the K-8 Science Infrastructure Project based in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; and with the start-up reform program in Kansas City, Missouri.

Fortunately, ASSET’s record of student achievement is not unlike many of its sister programs, including the Dow-sponsored reform programs in Delaware and the El Centro, California, initiative, which is successfully leveling the science playing field for underprivileged Latino students.

Digging deeper

Although all of this is indeed good news, with the pipeline problem coming into sharp focus once again, we began to ask ourselves: If this kind of professional development is having such a positive effect on student achievement, could part of U.S. students’ problem with science achievement have its roots in the way and extent to which elementary science teachers are being trained to teach science while they are in their college teacher training programs?

That was the central question posed by a national survey Bayer commissioned earlier this year. One component of our multifaceted Making Science Make Sense program, an initiative that advances science literacy across the United States through hands-on, inquiry-based science learning, employee volunteerism, and public education, is an annual public opinion research project called the Bayer Facts of Science Education. Over the years, it has polled various audiences including science teachers, parents, and the nation’s Ph.D. scientists about an array of science, science education, and science literacy issues. This year, in the Bayer Facts of Science Education X: Are the Nation’s Colleges and Universities Adequately Preparing Elementary Schoolteachers of Tomorrow to Teach Science?, we put that question to those who know about the issue best: deans of the nation’s schools of education who are responsible for training U.S. teachers and the country’s newest generation of elementary teachers themselves.

Of all subjects, science is the one that new teachers say they wish had been given more emphasis in their teacher training courses.

What we found is both encouraging and disappointing at the same time. First, the bad news: The survey revealed that although deans believe science should be the fourth “R” and placed on equal footing with reading, writing, and math, science is still treated as a second-tier subject. And it is treated this way as much in college programs that train elementary schoolteachers as it is in elementary school classrooms. For example, the new teachers report that when they were in college, science received less emphasis than English and math in their teaching methods courses, a finding with which the deans concur. And many more new teachers and deans gave “A” grades to their English and math teaching preparation than to their science-teaching prep courses. Further, of all subjects, science is the one that new teachers say they wish had been given more emphasis in their teacher training courses.

Unfortunately, this all has a clear impact in today’s elementary school classrooms. Consider: Most of the teachers polled say that, unlike the other core subjects, they do not teach science every day. Second, fewer new teachers say they feel “very qualified” to teach science compared to the other basics. And, only 14 percent rate their school’s overall science program excellent, whereas 30 percent rate it fair or poor.

Although this is all unacceptable, there has been some progress made, according to the survey, specifically in the area of inquiry-based science teaching methods. For instance, the vast majority (74 percent) of deans say the National Science Education Standards have had a significant impact on their institution’s K-5 teacher education programs. Both deans (95 percent) and teachers (93 percent) agree that having students conduct hands-on experiments, form opinions, and then discuss and defend their conclusions with others is the most effective way for them to learn science. And 79 percent of deans believe the emphasis on inquiry-based science teaching should increase in U.S. elementary schools. Further, 83 percent of deans report this is the method their institution uses to train its K-5 teacher candidates to teach science, a finding confirmed by the teachers surveyed. Correspondingly, 78 percent of new teachers say they use inquiry-based science teaching most often in their classrooms. (Ten years ago, in the first Bayer Facts survey, only 63 percent of elementary teachers reported using inquiry-based methods.)

Although there is definitely movement in the right direction, the survey’s big take-home message is that elementary school science education needs a stronger emphasis at the preservice college/university training level if we are to successfully make science the fourth “R” and effectively reverse the pipeline problem. I believe this must be the next step in science education reform.

Fortunately, there are several colleges and universities leading the way in this area. They have developed innovative preservice elementary education programs that are providing hands-on training in hands-on science so that the teachers of tomorrow are skilled in this methodology the minute they graduate and enter the classroom. I’m referring now to the Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education (SMATE) Program at Western Washington University (WWU), which has become a national paradigm for improving teacher preparation in science. Under the direction of George D. Nelson, former astronaut and director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Project 2061, the SMATE faculty is engaged in the reform of undergraduate courses in the respective disciplines as well as in education. Building on their research expertise, the faculty works as a multidisciplinary team while exploring how to provide the best training and support for future teachers.

In Pennsylvania, ASSET continues to grow and recently has reached out to a number of area universities, including Duquesne University, California University of Pennsylvania, and Robert Morris University to create the Inquiry Science Endorsement (ISE). The ISE is designed to prepare prospective teachers at the undergraduate level for inquiry-based science education classrooms. To earn the ISE, kindergarten through fifth grade teacher candidates must demonstrate their knowledge and skills in science content, methods, and application to teaching.

Still another program exists at West Liberty State College in West Virginia. West Liberty is a partner in the WV-Handle on Science Project. There, all teacher candidates are required to take a “materials and methods” semester. Students are paired with a local area teacher and spend two full days a week in elementary classrooms, observing and teaching different core subjects. The other three days a week are spent in five separate courses in science, math, reading, language arts, and social studies.

The West Liberty materials and methods science course uses the project’s pedagogy and instructional materials to demonstrate to students how to teach science. In addition, teacher candidates are required to fulfill volunteer hours in the Materials Resource Center and serve internships with many of the project’s teachers. What WV-Handle on Science and West Liberty have found is that the pre-service teachers now are much more comfortable and competent teaching science, and the initial science phobia, which was once prevalent, has subsided.

Western Washington University, West Liberty State College, Duquesne, and the other Pittsburgh area universities have created programs that give science first-tier emphasis. Fortunately, this handful of forward-thinking institutions has developed model programs that can be studied and emulated by others. There are roughly 1,200 U.S. colleges and universities that house schools of education. Considering how important science is to the United States, I believe the next great wave of science education reform must take place here. When it comes to creating a healthy science pipeline, college and university teacher training programs are where it all begins.

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Cite this Article

Payne, John. “Precollege Science Teachers Need Better Training.” Issues in Science and Technology 21, no. 1 (Fall 2004).

Vol. XXI, No. 1, Fall 2004