Oct. 1, 2012

Fill the STEM pipeline by recruiting, training, supporting science teachers

For science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields in New York state, we don't have an unemployment problem -- we have an employment problem. According to the nonprofit Change the Equation's report "Vital Signs, New York," there are 1.7 STEM jobs per unemployed person and 3.4 unemployed people per non-STEM job. According to the report, "students' lagging performance in K-12 is a critical reason why."

Too few New York students possess the skills and degrees necessary to fill these STEM-based positions; nor do they demonstrate interest in these professions. This is a pipeline problem not only of students, but also of STEM teachers. There are also too few teachers with the skills and resources they need to improve student performance and encourage interest in STEM careers. According to the 2010 "Educator Supply and Demand in the United States" report, scarcest of all are physics teachers, with chemistry and math teachers not far behind.

In recent testimony to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Education Reform Commission, I proposed an integrated approach to STEM teacher recruitment, pre-service training, in-service professional development and resource development. This solution could yield an all-important pipeline of qualified teachers, as well as the students they would inspire to earn STEM degrees.

There is no comprehensive state plan to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), now under development, which will move K-12 instruction away from mile-wide, inch-deep, passive learning toward deeper, interactive, hands- and minds-on learning.

As a member of the New York State Leadership Team for NGSS development, I am excited about the prospect of teaching science as it is actually practiced. But I am realistic enough to understand that implementing these standards presents the state with a huge challenge.

Cornell is poised to implement a solution in partnership with other university science and engineering departments and pre-service teacher programs, Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) and school districts. The Center for Nanoscale Systems Institute for Physics Teachers (CIPT), funded from 2001 to 2012, provided in-service physics teachers with the content knowledge, exposure to state-of-the-art research and classroom resources they needed to better teach and interest students in science.

Also, Cornell's physTEC grant, funded from 2007 to 2010, developed a successful program to identify and nurture future physics teachers among the ranks of its undergraduate science and engineering majors via an undergraduate teaching assistant program and mentoring by in-service physics teachers.

CIPT developed a library of 40 engaging physics lab activities that close to 1,800 teachers, about 600 of them from New York state, have borrowed over the past decade. Students used CIPT hardware more than 60,000 times over seven school years, with roughly half of that use by New York state students.

If the program were to continue, CIPT lab kits could still be created and distributed and pre-service methods courses could be developed using CIPT hardware and content. CIPT lab hardware and documents could easily be adapted and expanded to include middle school physical science and more closely align with the forthcoming K-12 science standards.

The grant periods for these programs have ended, but I hope that alternative sources of funding can be identified so that these successful programs can continue. By committing to their long-term implementation, New York state could take a leading role in science education reform, provide an urgently needed support system for science teachers, and take concrete steps toward creating a bigger and better pool of people qualified to fill science and technical positions.

Julie Nucci is an adjunct professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and served as director of the CNS Institute for Physics Teachers.