The science of teacher education


By many accounts, the picture of science education in the United States is bleak: American students lag their international peers in standardized test scores, fewer of them are studying science and engineering at the university level, and reports of scientific literacy among adults range from mediocre to appalling. (A recent study found that one in five still thinks the sun orbits Earth.)

Recognizing the bottom-up nature of the problem, the National Research Council (NRC) released a new framework for primary school science curricula in July, replacing one that was more than a decade old. The new standards call for the nation’s educators to rethink their approach to teaching science and engineering, in hopes of producing more scientists — or, at least, better-informed citizens.

At MIT, a small but focused group of undergraduates want to join the movement, pursuing teaching licenses alongside their bachelor’s degrees.

Those students are part of MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program (STEP), a teacher-certification program for undergraduates. STEP, established in 1995 as part of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, consists of five courses and a student-teaching placement; completion of the program earns students their Massachusetts teaching certification. And according to Eric Klopfer, associate professor of science education and STEP director, the program and the pool of students it draws from produce teachers who are well-equipped to implement the new NRC framework in their classrooms.

Under the new standards, students would explore concepts that cut across scientific and engineering disciplines, such as “cause and effect” and “stability and change.” The framework also cites a need to teach kids how science is actually done: the process of formulating a hypothesis, gathering data and analyzing results. “The new standards really emphasize science as a process … and I think the overall education that students wind up getting at MIT really prepares them well for that,” Klopfer says.

‘That clicking moment’

The NRC framework seems to imply that it’s more effective to take scientists and engineers and turn them into educators, rather than the other way around.

“The new framework says, and there’s a lot of research that agrees, that it’s important for [science teachers] to have engaged in the scientific research process,” says G. Michael Barnett, an associate professor of science education and technology at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education. “[STEP] does that really well.”

But program manager Wendy Huang says STEP faces its “own challenges” in doing things this way. “To be a successful teacher, you need to understand your students,” she says. For MIT students, that means exposing them “to a range of learners, students for whom math and science are not intuitive,” she says.

John Lim, a senior in STEP, agrees. “Coming to MIT doesn’t mean you’re good at explaining things,” he admits. He, like many teachers, feels a rush of satisfaction when his students experience “that clicking moment — when they’re like, ‘I get it!’” he says.

But when prompted for his most memorable experience from his student-teaching days, he cites a difficult moment: Having to put on his “game face” to discipline a student and control the hysterics of the other students.

“It gives you a whole new appreciation for what teachers have to deal with,” he says. “They do not get paid enough.”

‘Teachers Anonymous’

STEP classes attract 30 to 40 students each year, with about a dozen of them going on to complete their full certification. Klopfer says he and his students jokingly refer to the group as “Teachers Anonymous,” a support group for MIT undergraduates who have decided they want to become teachers, and face skepticism from others — namely, their parents.

To be sure, primary or secondary school teaching is not an obvious career path for MIT alumni, who often pursue graduate study or careers in industry. But Jenny Zhou, a senior biological engineering major pursuing her certification through STEP, says it was the similarities between education and engineering that drew her in.

“Both [biological engineering and teaching] are targeting small groups of people that have a lot of need,” she says. “In biological engineering, you might be trying to design a prosthetic that may only be used by a small number of people in the world, but it makes their lives more comfortable. In the classroom you’re focusing on making things comfortable for a small group of people — your students.”